Maskers Theatre Company Maskers Studio, Southampton David A Putley 23 October 2023
Written in less than two weeks at the height of the Blitz, ‘Blithe Spirit’ was Noel Coward’s attempt to cheer up the beleaguered British public. It did much more than that, going on to notch up a record-breaking 1,997 performances in the West End and becoming one of the best-loved comedies of all time.
For those few unfortunates unfamiliar with the plot it goes like this: as research for his latest novel, author Charles Condomine invites a spiritualist – Madame Arcati – to conduct a séance at one of his dinner parties. Unfortunately, she only succeeds in summoning the ghost of Charles’ deceased first wife Elvira, who proceeds to make things very awkward for him and his current wife Ruth.
The play bristles with some of Coward’s wittiest exchanges, such as the moment when Charles – who is firmly in the doghouse and trying to make awkward conversation – asks Ruth whether there is anything interesting in ‘The Times’ and is met with the acid riposte “Don’t be silly, Charles”. I liked the added reference to Hythe in this exchange.
Such sophisticated, expertly-crafted dialogue works so well when delivered in a clipped, precise way. Kate Grundy-Garcia did this to perfection. Her diction, delivery and timing were a joy to behold (and hear), making her perfect for the relentlessly logical and rather domineering Ruth. The opening Act 2 Scene between Ruth and Madame Arcarti and subsequently Mrs Bradburn was excellent
At her side, Jonathan Barney-Marmont, a languid, bitter and selfish Charles, had not just the correct look and bearing, but also brought a befuddled exasperation to the role, particularly in the farcical scenes when Charles is speaking to the ghostly Elvira (who can’t be seen by Ruth) and Ruth thinks he’s talking to her: his self-belief in his being always right struck just the right note.
Duncan Randall and Sue Dashper made a charming Doctor and Mrs Bradman, the former bringing an appealing bluffness to his role while the latter was incredibly natural with tone and riposte; it was clear the two had a very loving relationship which came across so well, a marked contrast to the three other “married” characters.
In the small role but pivotal in the plot (no spoilers) Maddy Cope played Edith the maid with great conviction making the most of her limited time on stage.
As with Lady Bracknell in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, in any production of ‘Blithe Spirit’ the spotlight inevitably falls on Madame Arcati. Like the fearsome Lady B, this is one of the great comic roles in theatre and a challenge for any actress. So, all praise to Jane Russell for staying just the right side of eccentric in exhibiting a real person. Her presence on stage and inter-action with those around her was perfect; I would almost go as far to say she was born to play this role such was her acute understanding belief of the character rather than eccentric flim-flam for the sake of it. As previously mentioned, her Opening Act 2 scene showed this superbly: this was no pretend “hurt”: this was an assault on her character and the responses were wonderfully navigated and pitched. Her diction and sense of being comfortable in her own skin shone through.
Katy De Haviland brought out a rather bored and disgruntled Elvira which fitted perfectly into this production. I rather liked the wrinkling of the nose at certain points in her sheer delight at her meddling. Her scene with Charles revealing each other’s affairs when she was alive was very well presented.
The set was brilliant: audience was heard to exclaim delight upon walking through the doors: it’s design and use of the space (which I always enjoy seeing how it is used) had clearly been well thought about and the smashing ornaments and billowing net curtains was just at the right level. The technical team and the flickering lighting brought a comfortable ambience: you really thought you were eaves-dropping into their living room. A good call to abandon the cigarette and cigar use too. You can tell this a definite team effort.
Director Philip De Grouchy has alluded to the challenge of learning a beautifully composed yet verbose script in a limited time as part of the programme notes. First night nerves meant the pace was a little quick and with some over-speaking. I don’t often suggest a slowing down but perhaps a more savouring of the lilt of the words will develop as the week goes on.
He has brought delight to an already delightful play and should poor himself and the whole team, a very dry Martini. The show runs nightly until Saturday 28th October.