Brighton Year-Round 2021
Directed by Nettie Sheridan, with Assistant Director Debbie Creissen with Set and Lighting and Design Effects by Martin Oakley, Wardrobe by Milla Hills (Dresser Sally Diver), Wig and Make-Up Chris Horlock with Sound Design by Nettie Sheridan and Nigel Bubloz (Jeff Woodford Operator). Properties Jo Hall and Sally Diver, Special Properties Construction Martin Oakley and Andrew Wesby.
Stage Manager Pete Dilloway, DSM Nigel Bubloz. Stage Crew Jo Hall, Sally Diver, Andrew Wesby, Steve Newlyn-Bowmer. Workshop Len Shipton, Ron Lainchbury, Simon Armes, Nigel Bubloz, Liz slough, David Otway, Martin Oakley. Publicity Phil Nair-Brown and Sarah Papouis, Photography Miles Davies, Flyers, Posters programme Design Gary Cook. Till December 11th.
Gilding a classic never works. But silver-plating part of it? There’s a thing. Nettie Sheridan conjures an innovation in this visit of one world to another.
Noel Coward’s 1941 Blithe Spirit follows the uproarious Present Laughter which it echoes at several plot-points.
Samantha Nixon is the lynchpin Madame Arcati whose séance – cynically invited to help novelist Charles (Phil Nair-Brown) with jargon for his latest novel – goes horribly awry. The unsuspected reason for that we don’t discover till near the end and it’s a tribute to Coward’s generosity as well as mastery of craft.
Still, the séance leaves Charles with a smoking ghost: his siren first wife Elvira (silvery Hannah Whitty) determined to claim him back from his second bossy, less sexy wife Ruth, played by the wholly assured Lou Yeo who gives one of the strongest performances in her mix of bossiness, genuine concern, well-founded jealousy and exasperation.
Martin Oakley’s sterling set – a drawing room painted deep blue from the early 1990s – is a hopscotch 1930s affair. There’s mantelpiece upstage, white bookcase and flower stand left of that. Upstage right a double-doored Arts and Crafts mock-medieval affair (Coward asked for one) opens onto a corridor and there’s a blind one to its left. Stage left there’s a window full of blowy mischief and of course a sofa and chairs, a writing bureau downstage right from the window, and a table used for the séance downstage of that. The Persian rug and chattels seem innocuous. Some do however rise to the occasion.
Oakley’s is also responsible for the clean lighting and effects design and operation
Milla Hills strikes a quietly uproarious costume design: diaphanous moonstone silver paint for one stray ghost (another for just the closing minutes is clearly beyond anyone’s scope), a magnificent shapeless russet for Arcati, seemingly in permanent deciduous action in leaf and gesture, and for women burgundy or dowdy dresses.
Nettie Sheridan and Nigel Bubloz create a mischievous sound design and other noirish extravaganzas touched in out of pure hocus.
The chemistry between Nair-Brown and Yeo is one of the energy poles blistering and bickering into a triangle when invisible (to Yeo’s Ruth) Whitty’s Elvira apparates to Charles only. Nair-Brown – another who’s convincingly inside his role – is able to project something of the hurt-boy-petulant that lurks in many Coward heroes, masking a deeper egomania. Here Charles is less brilliantly juggling than say Present Laughter’s Gary Essendine but still has to juggle wives. There’s less of the creative artist – despite his nominal novelising – more the harassed and martially-divided husband. Nair-Brown’s exasperated haplessness is palpable.
Yeo too echoes Mrs Essendine, though again she’s deliberately less brilliantly coping, more conventional and middle-class. Her horizons extend to a comfortable rather passionless marriage, with little purr-noises ghosted just once as a kind of homage to artificial passions she felt in the past. It’s a mildly ungrateful role Yeo gratifies in. She also has the best line. No spoilers but it invokes Folkstone.
Never more so than when dealing in ever-spiralling disbelief as the invisible and visible worlds collide: a chair, a flower-pot. None of this ends well for her. Her shreds of bourgeois dignity stick to the innocent and roughly-treated Arcati. Yeo’s imperious way with Nixon brings a frisson of delight.
Nixon’s high-energy singing through her part might not be the classic Arcati, but it’s a fresh and believable take, even if Ruth would never permit a bicycle in her house. Like some fluttery-tree Ent from Lord of the Rings, Nixon spins round, a kind of sapling on illegal substances. She can invest the bumbling Arcati with a touch of pathos. Her look when she’s told the truth of her initial invitation or an opinion of her powers, is a little bit devastating.
Elsewhere she comes to with the lights up on a scene crying spiritual havoc. Nixon’s timing and the crab-ways dance across the stage is matched against her fumble and frolicsome foraging for cucumber sandwiches. There’s outrage and an almost childish delight in ectoplasmic evidence.
Amy Whittington’s maid Edith matches Nixon in comic walks and bizarre mis-timings, as well as some freakish voices. It’s a gem of a part which Whittington invests with feeling.
There’s some fine casting too in Tim Ingram and Zoe Edden as Dr and Mrs Bradman. Ingram is solid mahogany avuncular, a no-nonsense 1930s doctor convinced the bin might be right for Charles but anxious to observe the niceties: he is after all middle-class and a friend. Again, he gives one of the most sterling performances here. Edden manages that strained jollity and deadly pall of the thwarting thwarted woman Coward was to perfect in his film treatment of Still Life: Brief Encounter.
Whitty’s diaphanous Elvira was killed off by laughing too hard at a BBC programme whilst recovering from pneumonia, caught after a little light adultery on a motor launch. It’s certainly not killed off her sex-drive though, as Ruth discovers unwittingly finding her husband with his hair blown all over. Later she’d guess this was a blow-dry-job from the beyond, the nearest Elvira can get to having sex with her former husband this side of the divide.
This is where silver-painting proves an inspired visual choice, but one that mutes the actor. Whitty suggests that given the chance she could be a slinky Elvira. With her face painted though, blurring all expression, and some of the physical dynamics lacking intimacy – as if the two worlds can’t collide -Whitty’s challenged beyond most to prove her Elvira-ness.
Whitty moves diaphanously though, minxing up and down just out of reach of all but Charles, and able to reach anyone she likes. She inhabits a too shadowy amorousness, cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, which is part of Elvira’s point but by no means all. It’ll be good to see Whitty unleashed in this world next time.
At its best this Blithe Spirit glides with strong performances, and Coward does much of the rest. The denouement conventionally riffing off – and upending – the one in Present Laughter, here takes on new meaning and something happens. You’ll have to see this, and what happens to the set in those final moments. They stamp an interesting, if occasionally curious revival, well worth mounting.