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West Berks revives the spirit of Noël Coward

New Era Players: Blithe Spirit at New Era Theatre, Wash Common from Thursday, November 23, to Saturday, November 25, and Tuesday, November 28, to Saturday, December 2


Blithe Spirit
Blithe Spirit

WITH nearly 2,000 performances following its opening in the West End in 1941, Blithe Spirit was the most successful play in the country’s history until overtaken by The Mousetrap and there can’t be many amateur theatre companies that haven’t indulged in its frivolity.

Indeed, it continues to enjoy professional revivals with Judi Dench and Jennifer Saunders recently appearing as Madame Arcati on film and stage.

Essentially, the play is one protracted joke, as familiar and comforting as an old cardigan.

As each outing passes, we may wonder why we keep getting it out of the cupboard, but we still do. As with any old joke though, it’s not the punch line that counts, but the way it’s told.

As the curtain opens on New Era’s production, we are presented with a convincingly cosy 1930s sitting room.

Compliments to Jane Read for the design which, we later see, has a few supernatural tricks up its sleeve.

In the opening scene, Ruth, the lady of the house, attempts to prepare gauche young maid Edith for an imminent dinner party.

The contrast between Ruth, played with domineering chilliness by Sally Hall, and Ellie Maslin’s slightly terrified Edith, lays the ground for the entrance of Charles and an exposition of the play’s central plot line.

Blithe Spirit
Blithe Spirit

In order to progress with the writing of his next novel, Charles Condomine needs to research into the tricks and wiles of a spiritual medium.

He’s invited local eccentric Madame Arcati to dinner along with Dr and Mrs Bradman, there to make up the numbers and disguise his true intentions for the evening.

Condomine’s first wife, Elvira, died seven years previously but remains a source of some envy with new wife, Ruth. Following dinner, the group take part in a séance.

Even those unfamiliar with the story (unlikely) will, at this point, surely predict what’s coming next, so there’s no real spoiler alert here.

Madame Arcati manages to summon, to her own surprise and delight, the spirit of Elvira.

New Era Players Blithe Spirit Pic: Brian Harrington
New Era Players Blithe Spirit Pic: Brian Harrington

However, only Charles can see and hear her which inevitably leads to a number of crossed, and increasingly cross, conversations as the imperious Ruth and flirtatious Elvira compete to possess Charles. Elvira’s cunning plan is to get Charles to pass over to her side by sabotaging his car. The plan backfires when Ruth takes the car out with the result that Charles ends up being haunted by both of his still bickering wives.

As the shallow and fickle Charles, David Tute does a fine job vacillating between deferring to the frosty demands of Ruth and succumbing to the arch coquettishness of Georgie Gale’s Elvira.

The part of Madame Arcati is a gift to any actor with a flair for the exuberant and its invitation is gratefully accepted and embraced by Lisa Harrington who embellishes the role with enthusiastic and at times quite alarming physical and vocal expressions of mumbo jumbo.

Making up the company are the politely sceptical Dr Bradman played as an earnest Scot by Gareth Croft, and his out of her depth wife (Jacqui Thumper) whose only recognisable characteristic is that her comments are always misinterpreted.

New Era Players Blithe Spirit Pic: Brian Harrington
New Era Players Blithe Spirit Pic: Brian Harrington

Overall, director Stephen Bennett’s revival has warmth and pace. There were a few places when the dialogue, like Charles’s car at the end of the play, took a corner too quickly and left the road forcing the actors to scrabble to regain control but this they managed well.

This production sits neatly into a very English heritage of comedies at the wry smile end of the scale rather than the side-splitting laugh end.

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