Noel Coward’s evergreen classic, Blithe Spirit, is camp and farcical out of the box but the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) has somehow managed to turn the dial a few more notches. Their new mounting of the play, now on at the Sydney Opera House, retains all of the original charm while also feeling fresh, modern and just a little bit cheeky.

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It took Coward just six days to tap out his manuscript. It was 1941, his home and studio in London had been bombed to pieces and he retreated to a beach in Wales to channel his mental energy into something less morbid – a play about ghosts.

The main character, Charles Condomine, is a vain and self-indulgent writer. Coward, knowingly or otherwise, has reflected some of himself in the character. After finishing his play he reportedly said:

“…disdaining archness and false modesty, I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success.”

And he was right.

Visual Feast Filled With Hidden Easter Eggs

This STC production is a visual feast filled with hidden Easter eggs. David Fleischer’s set is a panoramic of a self-contained 1930s interior. Panning from far left is a fireplace, a small library, a lounge room with lush russet settee and wood-framed moss-green armchair, a round, wooden ornamental table, walnut baby grand piano, then double glass doors at the side, presumedly leading out to the patio.  At the back wall is a credenza furnished with a portable record player and other period knick-knacks.

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Large double sliding doors behind the settee open to reveal a kind of foyer area dominated by a very large, smooth marble sculpture; what it represents is really up to the eye of the beholder.

Matt Day is perfectly cast as Condomine. Day has the look and feel of an old-timey British actor, with very good comic timing and the right amount of smugness. He is convincing as the pickle in the wife sandwich breaded by his current living spouse and erstwhile deceased spouse.

Courtney Act’s Much-Heralded Thespian Debut

Courtney Act, in her much-heralded thespian debut, plays the pivotal role of Elvira, Condomine’s first wife who is conjured back to the real world by a medium. Act is admirable in her portrayal, though she doesn’t quite have the confidence of the seasoned actors around her – understandably so. Having Act in that part does allow for lots of wink-smirk knowing jokes and adds an interesting dimension to Elvira and Condomine’s relationship.

Brash soul-singer, Nancy Denis plays the rather subdued Mrs Bradman. Cast opposite her in another gender switch is Tracy Mann as a kilt-clad, ginger-maned Dr Bradman. She may not quite pass, but there’s a self-aware humour in that.

Brigid Zengeni is the quirky, eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, and she takes to the role with relish. Zengeni has lots of controlled energy with her performance bordering on but never stepping into slapstick.

Competing for best-in-show are the final two cast members: Bessie Holland as Ruth Condomine and Megan Wilding as Edith, the maid. Both are on stage in the opening scene and it is already magic. Wilding barely needs to speak or even move to evince laughter. It is only the limit of her stage time that prevents her from walking away with the audience under her arm.

Holland is sheer class. Her delivery is impeccable and she has a reassuring confidence on stage.

Paige Rattray has directed with broad strokes but the dialogue and action is tight and well-timed. There are some choices in this production whose merits are arguable but overall it is a very enjoyable, satisfying night of classic theatre.

Blithe Spirit plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 14, 2022.

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