Blithe Spirit (Brasenose Arts Week)

Wed 9th – Sat 12th May 2012


Thomas Stell

at 23:43 on 9th May 2012



Noël Coward’s 1941 comedy is the story of a man subjected to a farcical haunting by his dead wife. Performing in the Brasenose New Quad as part of the college’s arts’ festival, the company delivered a rather lifeless performance to a small audience attending loyally rather than enthusiastically. The script is still Coward, his dialogue crisp, and though not as full of his distinctive and quotable rejoinders as some of his better known works for the stage, it is perfectly good. None of this crispness I am afraid can be seen in the acting.

The play begins when elegant novelist Charles Condomine, now happily married to Ruth, invites the psychic Madame Arcati to dinner as material for his next book. During the séance that follows, Charles’ previous wife Elvira appears, and finds herself unable to leave the physical world. Visible only to Charles, Ruth is left bewildered and doubtful of her husband’s sanity and the couple, as so often in Coward, begin their quarrelling. So does Elvira with Charles, to make up for lost time. Nor does Ruth’s eventual conviction of Elvira’s presence make matters much easier as there follow frantic conversations with Arcati, delighted with her achievements; and botched exorcism attempts.

Eylon Aslan Levy’s Charles lacks the slightly dandiacal poise which so suits the part, his bearing and intonation are not sufficiently refined and in plucking olives from his martini glass by hand and noisily eating them he descends, as in the laughter with which he follows so many of his lines, almost to the boorish. One cannot expect Rex Harrison’s charming rogue of the very fine David Lean film adaptation in a student production, but I think one can expect better than this. Abi Pipkin’s Ruth is better; she gives a properly understated performance, and in her confused exasperation with her husband she is likeable enough. A good counterpart to Lizzy Dykstra McCarthy’s playful, if not at all fey as the script suggests, Elvira. Nor is Mary Flanigan’s Madame Arcati altogether without merit, though she seems, as so many of the cast, not entirely sure of what to do with her character. The part is not that of a stereotypical medium – all flowing scarves and crystal balls. Coward’s Arcati, while wearing flowing dresses and quite possibly using a crystal ball in her time offstage, speaks throughout in a wholly inappropriate school girl slang, reminiscent of hockey teams and dormitories and Daisy Pulls it Off. That is the great joke. When sucking at the very last dregs of her cocktail or doing her bizarrely athletic warm-ups for communication with the spirit world Flanigan is amusingly hearty, but too much mystic-like airiness creeps back in at other times for the comedy to be secure.

The antics of the maid Edith are perhaps the gag that best survives contact with this production. Always speaking with nervous breathlessness, making entrances and exits at a run, easily disorientated by Charles’ facetiousness and doing everything “at the double” she is ably represented by Jules Roe. Her furtive sipping of a martini once her master and mistress have gone – she then spits it out in disgust – is nicely daft and girlish. It is a shame then that the stage was rather cluttered. Although the company cannot by blamed for the space they had to use, and it would have been a shame to lose a sofa or the gramophone, the actors seemed forever to be dodging between bits of furniture, and Edith’s rushing looked a bit like the tackling of an obstacle course. As for the costumes, they keep as close to the forties as small production budgets will allow, though Elvira’s ghostly white make up somehow makes her look faintly bedraggled. Sound is provided by two speakers in front of the stage which have a way of getting between you and the face of the actor you want to watch. They boom out Coward’s own songs as well as other period music, a doorbell sound effect which I thought might leave me deaf, and punctuate the dialogue with logging-on noises everyone thought hilarious.

No doubt such technical problems will be sorted out over the course of the run. So too I expect will the actors become more lively and communicate better with each other and the audience as a result - tonight most of the company seemed to be possessed by that nervousness which makes gestures cramped and leaves a dead look in the face. While I am glad that so many productions are being done for the Brasenose Arts’ Week, I wonder whether talent has been spread too thin in this one. Whilst some skill is evident, it does not quite add up to an evening I would recommend.


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