Sunday, August 4, 2013

Delightfully Fluffy: Blithe Spirit at Stratford

Susie Burnett as Edith and Seana McKenna as Madame Arcati (Photo by David Hou)

I had planned to skip the Stratford Theatre Festival’s Blithe Spirit. It seemed to me like a piece of fluff, and there were so many “serious,” “worthy” plays to be seen at the festival. But I had a space in the schedule, and Noël Coward’s 1941 screwball farce was there, so off I went. As you might expect, it was a great decision, however inadvertent. Blithe Spirit is fluffy, but it’s delightful fluff, directed by Brian Bedford with a sure hand, performed with comic panache by a terrific cast, and all of it set in Simon Higlett’s gorgeous jewel of a set. My apologies to Mr. Bedford. I should have known better.

In the play, which was enormously successful in war-blighted London, popular novelist Charles Condomine (Ben Carlson) and his wife Ruth (Sara Topham) have invited eccentric medium Madame Arcati (Seana McKenna) to conduct a séance. Their friends Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (James Blendick and Wendy Thatcher) are the other guests for dinner. The spirit of the séance is skepticism: Charles and Ruth think of the evening as research into the occult for his next book, and the Bradmans are outright scoffers. The séance is a failure, as far as the scoffers and disbelievers are concerned, and they expected nothing else — although Charles thought he saw … something. In fact, Madame Arcati has inadvertently invoked the spirit of Charles’s first wife, Elvira (Michelle Giroux), who has been dead for seven years (she died from a heart attack, from laughing uncontrollably at a BBC comedy).

Seana McKenna (Photo by David Hou)
Only Charles can see or hear Elvira, but Ruth finally believes when furniture moves and vases smash. And she is not happy. Elvira, for her part, plans to stay around for a while, and even to rekindle her relationship with Charles. She’s an extremely physical spirit, flirty and fun-loving. While Ruth – played by Topham with an impressive blend of dudgeon and drollness – conspires with Madame Arcati try to exorcise Elvira, the ghostly late wife sets out to re-establish her relationship with Charles. For his part, Charles seems to think it’s nice to have her back. The conclusion … well, the conclusion is full of twists and surprises, and if you don’t already know how it all ends up, you’re out of luck, because I’m not going to tell you here.

Is Blithe Spirit silly? Of course it is, but elegantly, wittily silly, full of delicious romantic-comedy banter that is somehow grounded in genuine human emotions. The cast is right on the mark, from Susie Burnett as the Condomines’ hyperactive maid to McKenna’s hilarious turn as Madame Arcati, who seems to be channeling Margaret Rutherford by way of Margaret Atwood. The chemistry at work among Carlson, Topham and Giroux is palpable, and the cast’s comic timing is first-rate.

Skip a Noel Coward play directed by Brian Bedford? What was I thinking?

- Jack Kirchhoff is a recently retired arts journalist from Toronto. In the past 35 years at The Globe and Mail, he has been a publishing reporter, theatre critic and book review editor, among several other things.

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