by Noël Coward
September 29th - October 6th, 2001
The Tower Theatre Company performing at the Tower Theatre, Canonbury
Director : Peter Westbury
In-house review by Colin Smith
Before retirement, Colin Smith was
a BBC Radio producer specialising in poetry and drama for schools.
For BBC Worldwide he edited and co-produced Noel Coward - An Autobiography, which was voted Best Production in the Spoken Word Awards 2001.
The Coward Centenary celebrations two years ago brought us a mixed bag: a poised Private Lives at the National; in the West End the well cast and handsomely mounted A Song At Twilight as well as a disgraceful travesty of Hay Fever. It was galling to amateur theatre that only a few leftovers from the canon were then available to the community that had kept his work consistently before the public whether in or out of critical fashion - an enduring reproach, one hopes, to the Coward Estate.
However, Sara Randall's persistence has finally won through and the Tower's current revival of Blithers - as the Coward set invariably knew it - is a matter for rejoicing. (The pecking order of popularity, incidentally is : 1. Blithe Spirit, 2. Private Lives, 3. Hay Fever).
When Coward wrote it in the spring of 1941 he had just returned from wartime assignments abroad to a blitzed London. "Abbey hit, also Houses of Parliament. Smell of burning everywhere" he wrote in his diary. "The whole city is a pitiful sight" After two weeks of northern try-outs Blithe Spirit opened at the Piccadilly Theatre. "The audience had to walk across planks laid on the rubble caused by a recent air raid to see a comedy about death". Yet "there's no question of morbidity", he insisted, "because there's no heart in the play. You can't review sympathise with any of them. If there was a heart, it would be a sad story".
Peter Westbury's elegant Tower production presented no fears on that score. It set off at a cracking pace establishing the humorous context and showed signs of careful planning and presentation. Alan Root's striking set design in restrained monochrome art-deco placed precisely the world of Charles and Ruth Condomine - and in practical terms, served the technical demands of the spirit world too.
Accompanying decor and props were equally faithful to period : the pre-war Times, a green Penguin Crime paperback ... Laurence Tuerk's sound design enhanced the supernatural high jinks, and it was lit by Nick Insley with subtle differences of level and tone-colour according to mood.
Gielgud thought Blithe Spirit "terribly over-written. It was a good joke but he spun it out too much". This certainly did not seem the case : Coward's introduction of Ruth as a second revenant, late in the action, and enhanced by the playing of an assured cast, held the audience right through. Kay Perversi's costume designs had period appeal, wit, and - in the case of Madame Arcati - inspired craziness.
As Ruth Condomine, Rosalind Moore presented a brittle comic persona and effortless sense of period elegance, conducting domestic squabbles with the demure acidity necessary to this type of dialogue. She was well partnered by Anthony Wilson as her husband Charles who was vocally suited to the familiar Coward type of male whose surface gravitas gives way to fretfulness as soon as his womenfolk start to get uppish. He underplayed some of his best ripostes, and their breakfast slanging match together was Joyous.
As Elvira, Charles's reincarnated first wife, Emmeline Winterbotham flitted glamorously and insubstantially through the drawing-room ether, harassing the hapless couple by the irritating logic of her presence; their many variations of double-entendre and misunderstandings did not pall.
The dinner guests Dr. and Mrs Bradman (Henry Finlay and Virginia Munrow) moved steadily from relaxed enjoyment to consternation and, finally, outrage; Rebekah Higgitt as Edith, the indispensable Coward maid character, also laid the comic grounding for her dénouement.
The role of Madame Arcati is one to die for, but has instant quicksands for the self-indulgent. Here Celia Reynolds gave a beautifully judged original : an incisive, impetuous eccentric, this Madame Arcati swept all before her, inventive throughout and memorable in her comic trance.
That genial and generous-hearted entertainer the late Arthur Marshall once lamented that amateur actors should ever take on the challenge of Coward's plays. He confessed himself appalled by the ineptitudes of diction, gesture, costume, design, concluding wearily : "All, all is wrong".
In the present case however I believed he would have admitted himself gravely in error.