Affluent novelist Charles Condomine (Matt Day) has a ripper of an idea for his next book, focusing on a spiritual medium that turns out to be a hack. To gather valuable details for his psychic sham, he and his second wife Ruth (Bessie Holland) invite the local spiritualist Madame Arcati (Brigid Zengeni) for dinner, along with their not particularly well-liked neighbours Dr Bradman (Tracy Mann) and his wife (Nancy Denis). The butter-fingered gaffs of maid Edith (Megan Wilding) notwithstanding, the evening looks to have been a great success, until Charles’ long-deceased first wife Elvira (Courtney Act) emerges from the ether.
It’s a set up ripe with comic potential and given the speed with which Nöel Coward penned this play – just six days from blank page to completed show – he clearly knew that the audiences of his day would think it a real knee-slapper. And yet, it’s been more than 80 years since this paranormal farce first had audiences rolling in the aisles. As a story that is so inextricably of its time, there’s a real risk that Blithe Spirit’s ghostly gags could leave a present-day audience as cold as the grave. Which makes it all the more apt that this Sydney Theatre Company production of a play about summoning the dead should also be a lesson in how to breathe new life into a heritage comedy that might otherwise struggle to find a pulse.
Key to its success is a particularly brave bit of irreverence. Coward’s hallowed wit usually takes centre stage, but director Paige Rattray’s production lets OTT characterisations of the campest foppery and wild physical schtick do the heaviest comic lifting. It’s an affectionate mockery of not just Coward, but an entire era of British comedy and melodrama that relied on droll winks, withering one-liners and the cleverness of an expensive education, set against the inequalities of the unflinchingly classist society of yesteryear.
Indeed, the biggest laughs come from moments of the text that were never intended to be played for laughs. Holland’s plummy British accent takes Queen’s English to surreal new extremes that can cause a riot in a single syllable. And Wilding milks comedy from a command of facial expression and timing that exist entirely in the margins of Coward’s stage directions. The role of Madame Arcati, usually a plum part for an older performer who can lean into elderly eccentricities, is transformed by Zengeni’s lithe, new-agey spin that loses none of the colour of Coward’s text but allows it to pass through an entirely contemporary prism.
Casting really is everything in this production. This is an ensemble that not only knows how to amp-up the most cartoonish qualities of the historical tropes writ large in Coward’s theatre, but also how to wield their juxtaposing, and in some cases gender-bending physicalities to add an extra dimension of absurdity. Not that Coward ever intended his characters to be played completely straight, but it's doubtful he ever imagined the kind of kooky silliness at the heart of this production.
However, when you have a cast that shines this brightly, every little blemish shows, and while this obvious bit of stunt casting will no doubt ring in some sales at the box office, drag superstar Courtney Act as Charles’ dead first wife Elvira, falls short of the performances she’s next to. Otherwise known as Shane Jenek, Act is a seasoned performer as her drag alter ego, but this seems to be as far as her acting chops can take her. There’s no question that the look is right, but this alone is just not enough to find any nuanced etherealism beyond the fluttering of Act’s silk nightgown. I hasten to add, Act’s is not a bad performance. She is charming, dynamic on stage and physically flawless – after all, if you’ve got it, haunt it! But when there are such wonders being conjured by the rest of the ensemble, Act’s performance too often lacked the same spirit.