Reviewed for us by William Bishop
BANG! The sound of a shattering crystal tumbler resonated through the room. “It’s those poltergeists!” said Madam Arcati (Kate O’Donovan), coolly staying in character through this unplanned and unsettling episode. We had gathered on the Ridgeway at the home of Cammie and Joe Brash for the Boars Hill Play Reading Group’s edition of Blithe Spirit, one of Noel Coward’s comic masterpieces. Play readings typically feature several readers, eyes glued to the scripts open on their laps, sitting on a semicircle of chairs facing the audience. By contrast, this play reading – produced and directed by Kate O’Donovan — was an almost complete production, with players in costume on a compact set, with only the scripts in their hands to remind you that it was not quite the full monty.
Charles Condomine (played by John Crowley) and his wife Ruth (Louise Jacobs) are receiving friends, Dr Bradman (Nigel Jones) and his wife (Moira DaCosta), for a séance conducted by a spiritualist, the gloriously batty Madam Arcati. It is not easy us, 75 years on from first performance, to recall that contacting the dead in some imagined spirit world was once taken seriously by a surprising number of far-from-flaky people. Air Marshall Dowding, the man who had won the Battle of Britain just a few months before the play was written, was a follower – believing firmly that he could communicate with those young fighter pilots – members of Churchill’s ‘Few’ — who had ‘gone for a Burton’ under his command.
A scene from the séance: Ruth Condomine (played by Louise Jacobs) Charles Condomine (John Crowley), Dr Bradman (Nigel Jones), and Mrs Bradman (Moira DaCosta).
The sparkling dialogue makes plain that this is a moneyed, metropolitan, sophisticated world of cocktails, idleness and adultery.
Charles: Captain Bracegirdle? I might have known it. What a fool I was. What a blind fool.
Did he make love to you?
Elvira: Of course.
Charles: Oh, Elvira.
Elvira: Only very discreetly. He was in the cavalry you know.
The spirit of Elvira (played by Clarissa Hennington, née Horwood, on a return visit from Tasmania) and Charles Condomine (played by John Crowley).
Madam Arcati – Kate O’Donovan played her with panache — summons back from the spirit world
Charles’ dead first wife, Elvira, played by Clarissa Horwood, her low-pitched voice perfect for Elvira — vulpine and libidinous even in the bardo. Ruth, the peaches and cream new-model wife, excellently played by Louise Jacobs, reacts in dismay and desperation to the sudden, bizarre threat to her well upholstered matrimonial gig. Lest we have too much sympathy for Ruth, Coward lets us see her bullying her timid servant, Edith, played with aplomb by Jane Jones who had stepped into the role only the day before when the intended reader fell ill. Nigel Jones as Dr Bradman and Moira DaCosta as his wife played their supporting roles with equal relish. Richard Jacobs provided well-judged lighting and sound effects that worked smoothly throughout.
The core of the play is the triangle of Charles, Ruth and Elvira. John Crowley as Charles was outstanding — his shock and bewilderment at the spectral return of his first wife wholly convincing, the cynical Coward lines delivered with perfect timing:
Charles: I remember her (Elvira’s) physical attractiveness, which was tremendous, and her spiritual
integrity which was nil.
Ruth: Was she more physically attractive than I am?
Charles: That is a very tiresome question, darling. It fully deserves a wrong answer.
And the play’s most celebrated line:
Charles: It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.
The interval saw the audience trooping into the dining room for year-end chatter, to the oddly suitable accompaniment of prosecco and mince pies, while some of the less chatty play-goers enjoyed looking at the striking collection of modern oils and acrylics on the walls.
I fancy Noel Coward would have approved the high-spirited dash of this reading/production. He wrote
and produced Blithe Spirit in 1941 – it ran for 2000 performances — in the darkest period of the War, when Britain stood alone: France overthrown, America neutral and Stalin’s Russia in détente with Hitler after their carve up of Poland. Coward’s approach to comic relief in perilous and stressful times was the same as Jane Austin’s in an earlier war that dominated the lives of her audience/readers – revel in sunny, carefree, unvexed days and never mention the war at all.
The second half went as brightly as the first – that shattered crystal tumbler apart — and soon it was over — applause, thanks, flowers and all. Then there was the hubbub of “Mine’s the red coat with the fur collar.” “When are you back?” “See you on Boxing Day.” “We fly out on the 24th” And with that Boarshillians said the goodbye to Cammie and Joe, giving them back their house, stepping out in clumps of twos and threes into the crisp December night.