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NODA Review - Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward

Noel Coward’s much loved classic received a polished and accomplished airing from the always reliable team at the Hippodrome. The comically supernatural goings-on in the Condomine household are underpinned by Coward’s witty and cynical exploration of the superficial relationships of the privileged upper middle class types who eschew commitment. Coward’s suggestion that relationships are more trouble than they’re worth - and come with a baggage of woes and tribulations it’s best to free yourself from - is a thread which runs through much of his writing, ‘Blithe Spirit’ disguising this coldly misogynistic streak with lashings of humour and spectrally farcical goings-on. In Madam Arcati, he also created a classic stage character who, despite not being the real focus of the play, lingers long in the memory. 

Holding the stage with real presence throughout the evening, James Claxton as Charles Condomine shone in a role which demands much of any performer. Effortless wit sprinkled the stage in his wake and he also suggested something of the flinty hard selfish attitude - admittedly, wrapped in silk - which Charles needs to convey. Liv Bellamy-Brown was a no nonsense presence as Ruth, giving a perfectly period performance which also went some way in establishing just the right tone of the piece. Both performers succeeded in creating a suitably successful air of period domesticity as filtered through Coward’s skewed lens, combining with a beautifully designed set to give a clean, crisp arena for the magical madness of the skewed seance and the mischievous summoning up of Charles’ ex-wife, Elvira. Two solid performances from Dan Clay and Natasha Priestley as Doctor and Mrs Bradman added further weight to the production, Dan in particular giving some admirably old school enunciation and projection to his visits to the stage.

The seeming conduit for this supernatural visitation is of course the now classic character of Madam Arcati, eccentric medium par excellence. Played here by Emma Stafford in what I felt was perhaps a rather unfortunately stilted performance, I wasn’t sure as to the direction in which the character was being steered. It was certainly a different take on the role than I have been used to and it’s always a good idea to attempt a fresh approach but for me, it didn’t quite work. The sari and the rather vague air Emma brought to the role were certainly fresh ideas and a new take on an established stage character but for me, they didn’t quite hit home. Personal taste I expect but there we are. Ellie Spooner’s maid, Edith, was a sparky little hurricane of a character however and was much appreciated by the audience, effectively dashing hither and thither around the Condomine residence.

Angela Mayall’s Elvira was every inch the mischievous sprite, a wonderfully vivid creation from an accomplished actress. The sparkling repartee between Elvira and Charles was very well done and the confidence of both players in mastering the dialogue was a joy to see and hear. I did think that on occasion, the pace of the narrative was a little sluggish with perhaps more careful respect than was strictly necessary paid to every last word of the dialogue but again, perhaps this was personal taste coming through: I think I prefer Coward’s dialogue to fairly rattle along and for each scene to bounce with sharp, sly wit. After all, taken at face value, the play is a fairly stark examination of the perils of being ‘tied down’ and of losing some of the freedoms of the bachelor life Coward was so fond of. Nevertheless, I applaud Richard Holley for his measured, controlled and humorous grasp of the director’s chair and for providing a solid version of a classic play.

This was a very well designed piece of theatre: a superb set which was dressed to perfection, as were all the members of the cast in a fine array of period outfits. Lighting was sympathetic and the final ghostly explosion of poltergeist activity was very well worked indeed. I did think Charles’ table kicking was perhaps a little too enthusiastic to suit the requirements of the plot but that’s a very minor quibble!

I salute everyone at the Hippodrome for their unwavering commitment to producing first class entertainment of the highest quality on a consistent basis. 2017 has been another great year for the world of amateur theatre in District 3 due in no small part to the dedication of all at the Hippodrome leading the way. My thanks go to everyone involved for welcoming Stuart and myself so warmly, for your kind hospitality and for another great evening’s entertainment.