Writer Charles Condomine gets more than he bargained for when he hosts a séance in the interests of research for his new book. He and his second wife Ruth invite local medium Madame Arcati to their house. They and their guests believe her to be a fake, yet lo and behold she somehow succeeds in conjuring up his first wife Elvira from the dead. But Elvira has an agenda of her own...
Noël Coward called his 1941 play an "improbable farce", dealing as it does with death and the nature of marriage. Its underlying elegance requires the characters to remain poised as the farcical elements of the plot, with its misunderstandings and cross-purposes, seek to derail them. The gentlemen in their gleaming dinner jackets and the ladies in evening gowns are armed only with correct deportment and ready repartee as they must firstly withstand the haunting of a house and secondly the potential collapse of what the gay, satirical Coward seems to deem that flimsiest of structures, a marriage. In the treatment of the subject matter, the tone hovers somewhere between the flippant and the baleful. The former element seemed daring and even shocking in wartime, blitzed Britain – less so today, of course, when the taboo of death has been knocked down in a thousand comedy routines - while the latter element, tracing the bumpy course of two marriages, becomes more pointed as Coward darkens the tone of his material en route to its fairly bleak conclusion.
The single, stylish set by David Long and assistants immediately beckons the audience into a world of upper-middle class comfort, with its panelling, Pre-Raphaelite paintings on the wall – Burne-Jones to the right and was it DG Rossetti to the left? -mahogany furniture and deep sofa, with grandfather clock half-seen in the hall. It's perfectly lit in the warm, yellowish light of complacency with a couple of excursions into a harsher, whiter beam in the seances. Then in the denouement, light, sound and movement combine to surprise with a bit of technical trickery. Director Jessica Reilly has worked hard to inject new energy into the material, though sometimes there's a discrepancy between the degree of amusement shown by the players themselves at their badinage and that of the audience whose laughter was noticeably more sparse. Noel Coward is no Oscar Wilde. Wilde would never have allowed some of the anodyne dialogue to see the light of day:
"Charles, if this is your idea of a joke then it's gone far enough!"
"All those nasturtiums are very vulgar".
"I like nasturtiums".
I wonder if I was alone in finding the bantering exchanges between Charles and wives no. 1 and 2 dwindling into slightly tiresome bickering. Certainly the appearances of Eve Callow-Salt's cleverly played zany maid, a jerky marionette in both speech and limb, livened the proceedings no end. I especially admired the director's handling of the movement of her actors – so often the Achilles' heel of amateur shows; in the seance scenes before the end, Ms Reilly's skilful choreographing of the action as the players pirouetted in the spectral lighting was a delight.
Paul Clifford's smooth Charles was a picture of cheerful complacency, for the most part as serene with one wife as with two or even none. His eventual disintegration comes as a shock, but Mr Clifford makes the transformation both plausible and bitter-sweet. His reaction acting throughout was first-class. Helen Taylor as wife No. 2 is an elegant presence. Her jousting with Charles has just the right mix of affection and pointed scepticism, and she manages her transition into a more adversarial standpoint with natural ease. Elvira, wife No. 1, is played by Cate Nunn as skittish and coy, almost a pubescent teenager as she uncoils herself on the sofa like a mermaid on a rock enticing passing mariners. This is an intelligent, carefully thought-out reading of the part. As Mme Arcati, Barbara Denton of course has the juicy role of the night and she makes the most of it. In baggy pantaloons, yellow and orange turban, endless scarf and mustard tunic she cuts an exotic but oddly suburban figure, as much Surbiton as Samarkand.
"I had my first trance when I was four years old and my first ectoplasmic manifestation when I was five and a half"
Roaming the drawing room in search of ghosts and paranormal clues, Ms Denton cleverly draws back from the very brink of ridiculous caricature and manages to show instead a more interesting and more human figure full of optimism and curiosity.
Oxford Theatre Guild can be relied upon to lay its professional, thoughtful imprint upon its drama and this show is no exception. Blithe Spirit is unlikely to stun newcomers to this playwright with its rather stereotypical brand of mildly subversive black comedy, but if this is the kind of thing you like, then a quality production awaits you all this week.