Edinburgh Fringe 2012
Edinburgh Makars run of Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” began last night in a quiet church hall in leafy Murrayfield. Set in the 1930’s, the play centres around a married couple who invite a local medium to hold a séance in their house. The evening’s shenanigans result in them summoning up an unexpected guest from the “other side” whose meddling and scheming results in some surprising events. It takes the medium, the couples resolve, and a simple domestic servant to solve their frightful conundrum
Charles Condomine is in his second marriage after the untimely death of his first wife, Elvira, succumbed to pneumonia. His new wife Ruth is a jealous woman still interested in what the attractions of the wife she never knew were to her husband. They have organised an evening with the local Doctor and his wife, an evening of dinner with the added curiosity of a new villager – Madame Arcati – an alleged conduit to the afterlife.
The séance is not without its drama as the Madame swoons around their lounge and ends in a final exhausted faint. After she leaves they mock her antics not believing that she is capable of her proclamations, although Charles is unnerved by a voice he thinks he may have heard. After the guests leave and Charles and Ruth are alone, he is shocked to discover the emergence of his first wife, who has been dead for 7 years, and that only he can see and hear her. Despite trying to convince Ruth of what he is experiencing, she is initially reluctant to believe him, but after Charles convinces Elvira to prove she is in the room, Ruth relents.
Elvira proves to be a tricky customer now that she has returned, and soon becomes a bone of contention between Charles and Ruth. In desperation they plan to return her from whence she came, but she has the upper hand, having already tampered with Charles’ car to ensure he joins her in the afterlife. Unfortunately it is Ruth who uses the car and she who angrily joins Elvira. From here they torment the poor man as they vie for his attention. The play develops as a maid who has yet to learn the skill of being “present but unseen” is forced to play an important part in the returning of these women to where they must finally rest in peace.
As we are seated in this small church hall, the refined strains of Noel Coward and Eartha Kitt serenade us. Directed by Jo Barrow, the play is set in a classic affluent 1930’s drawing room and you can imagine that much quaffing of Pimms No.1 takes place here. The lighting rarely changes apart from dimming for séances. It’s the first night and the cast are slightly nervous but appropriately stuffy as the spoilt classes of this era often were. In Act 1, there were definitely some first night fluffs but, by Act 2, the lead cast were beginning to believe in themselves and the roles they were playing. The petulant Elvira was suitably sulky and spoilt and Jan Renton applied herself to the role of Madame Arcati with great gusto; it’s a great part. Splendidly attired in flowing bohemian robes and silk slacks, Renton’s heavy breathing and ridiculous posturing whilst prepare herself to speak through a small child are appropriately ludicrous. The shuffling maid, Betty Douglas who saves the day is a performance Victoria Wood would relish.
The show is unfortunately far too long: Two and a half hours with two 15 minute breaks. There are overlong scene changes when the only change was costumes. Yes, they were dressed impeccably but the energy of the performance was sometimes lost due to the breaks. I would have liked to have seen more artistic license with the script and some daring direction, surely no disrespect to the great man’s script. The initial scenes lacked the comic edge that Cowards pen spat out but as the cast settled down, more laughs were achieved.
Blithe Spirit has always been a great script, lugubrious and rich in its pomposity. The cast show the celebrated play respect and commitment but it still has room for improvement and development.