When interviewed in the preview, director Rob McGough told us that Blithe Spirit was a play that “fizzes with energy… a genuine comedy classic,” but the performance of the show on Thursday night did not deliver on either of those promises.
Blithe Spirit is a Noel Coward classic that has been popular in the West End for years, and so perhaps was an ambitious challenge when Theatre Group decided to tackle it – however, in light of successful and similarly farcical previous productions of Keeping Down with the Joneses and Edinburgh original Hanging Bruce-Howard, it is surprising that this latest offering from the Theatre society didn’t hit the mark.
There were some impressive individual performances – Kae Yeboah as Madame Arcati, frankly, saved the show. Yeboah has a gorgeously watchable presence on stage and delivered a committed and totally uninhibited physical performance, which drew some much-needed laughs from the audience. It was evident that a real effort had gone into her performance to make her appear convincingly older, and this paid off for Yeboah, but showed some of the other, less accomplished actors up.
Other praise should be given to Anna Williams as Ruth Condomine, who gave an amusingly cold and believable performance, and showed great control over her voice – she became high-pitched when angry, but never shrill. Williams also displayed good comic timing, and the audience enjoyed watching her snipe at her bumbling husband. There were also enjoyable moments provided by both minor characters Dr Bradman (Oliver Bray) and servant Edwin (Andy Sugden), both of whom provided some well-rehearsed interjections; Bray has a confident presence that is a joy to watch, and Sugden showed true comic ability, making the audience laugh even when he didn’t have any lines.
The downfall, however, of the play was that these clearly talented actors weren’t given roles that allowed them to lead the show, meaning that the audience were too often submitted to long, tedious scenes between principal characters Charles Condomine (Alex Scotchbrook) and his first wife, Elvira (Hayley Baskerville). While both actors showed potential, Scotchbrook was out of his depth and threw a lot of important and/or comical lines away (although perhaps this was a lack of direction), resulting in scenes lead by him being disappointingly disengaging for the audience. Baskerville gave a good performance as the snubbed ex-wife, but her delivery felt over-rehearsed and showed little variation, meaning that she too became a tiresome presence on stage.
When it comes to the overall production, there were some clever moments in direction – such as when Williams, addressing Baskerville, who she couldn’t see, stared fixedly in entirely the wrong direction. Gimmicks like this, however, didn’t make up for the general lack of pace and energy, as well as a sense of laziness in direction. There was little creativity shown, and some unforgivably amateur moments of bad staging where the audience lost sight of actors’ faces due to where they were positioned.
The final disappointment of the show was in regards to the practicalities – the set, costume, and tech. The set and costumes showed a serious lack of attention to detail: the painfully 60s telephone in a 1940s play for example, and the plastic pint glass that stood out like a sore thumb among the other vintage glassware. There were also oversights in costuming – most noticeably Baskerville’s cartoonish make-up, meaning the audience lost a lot of her facial expressions. In addition, the choice to put Baskerville in high heels led to the sound of the heels hitting the stage floor taking away any belief that she might be a ghost. All of these minor issues were overshadowed, however, by the entirely lacklustre ‘special effects’ at the end of the play – when Charles, alone on stage, is supposedly being attacked by both ghosts of his wives, parts of the stage were very visibly rigged to move independently, but there was no sense of chaos or fright for Charles – the audience sat and watched one cheap effect after another until the lights went down.
It was an honest shame to see some genuine acting talent lost among the faults of this production, and disappointing that Theatre Group did not manage to pull off a genre that they have excelled at in past productions.
A note on the production: On Thursday night Lauren Franklin collapsed moments before going on stage, which resulted in hospitalisation. She will not be performing in any more shows, but is getting the medical attention she needs.
Blithe Spirit is being performed at the Annex Theatre at 7:30pm on the 28th and 29th of March. Tickets can be bought from the SUSU Box Office and cost £9 for adults, £6 for students or £5 for Performing Arts members.