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The Lancaster University Theatre Group presented their production of the play Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward last week at the Nuffield Theatre. The very name of the play already carries with it the expectations of a nonchalant otherworldly presence in this comedic piece. However, after seeing the production perhaps the use of ‘blithe’ should be called into question as it is hard to recall a single moment in this two-and-a-half hour performance in which anyone can be described as having acted with a cheerful indifference, instead favouring to have the characters slowly climb their way in hysteria. The result of this was a performance filled with an array of extravagant characters who didn’t overshadow one another but complemented each other on stage and produced genuine moments of hilarity amongst the audience.
The story is set up beautifully to allow for as much hijinks and hilarity as possible. The play is set around Charles (James Grant) and his two wives. Yes, two. One very much living and the other paying a visit from the ‘Other Side’. Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Sofie-Rose White), died seven years prior to the beginning of the play and his second wife, Ruth (Alice Sherlock), has been with him for five. And so, as I’m sure it is not hard to imagine, certain tensions arise once Charles unwittingly brings Elvira back from the dead, with the help of the enthusiastic Madam Arcati (Naomi Chidambaram), but with a catch: only he can see her.
The simple set of a 1940s home interior allowed for all attention to be focused on the actors, something that was perhaps necessary considering the lengthy sections of dialogue each character had. One character who had what seemed to be endless amounts to say was Ruth whose portrayal was handled brilliantly by Sherlock who was able to convey the character’s frenzied personality in a wonderfully comedic manner whilst somehow, unimaginably, not losing her breath or clarity over huge passages of text. Her husband handled his own response to the paranormal in much the same way. And it must be said that there’s something intensely satisfying about hearing the usually controlled and proper accent of Queen’s English suddenly turn shrill and high in hysteria, something made all the more pleasing when coupled with Grant’s wonderful acting when Charles first sees Elvira and cannot convince anyone else of her supernatural appearance. In a nice contrast to the hysterical and often highly-strung Ruth and Charles are the Bradmans, who provide a nice reprieve from the madness of the play. The ditsy Mrs Bradman (Abbie Grundy) is accompanied by the more stoic and sensible Dr Bradman (Andrew Holt), a mix which proves amusing to watch as they squabble. They are first introduced into the play when they arrive to attend Arcatis’ séance having been let in by the clumsy and hilariously vacant maid Edith (Anna Treacher).
The séance itself is the scene in which the brilliantly exuberant Madame Arcati shines. The play perhaps takes a while to build up but once it does it is worth it all for the séance, particularly to watch Arcati dance and call out to spirits across the stage all before entering a trance that has her flat on the floor, ignored by all other people present. Following this scene comes the first introduction of Elvira as blue lights announce her presence and she moves with a ghostly grace across the stage.
In the final scene Charles is trying desperately to be rid of his two wives, Ruth having been killed by Elvira in a trap intended for Charles. It is in this scene that an incident occurred that had the audience literally clapping and in fits of laughter. This was, of course, the unplanned slow rolling of Arcati’s crystal ball across the table top, watched by the audience with bated breath before silently watching it fall and shatter across the stage. The situation was handled beautifully by all the actors but especially Grant whom, after staring at it silently for a few seconds allowing it to sink it, jovially declared that, “we’ll deal with that in the morning” and jumped right back into the scene.
Bar a few technical hitches, the play was an absolute treat to watch, and if we’ve learnt anything from the crystal ball, which is of course its very purpose, it is that theatre is unexpected and sometimes that is exactly what can lead to the biggest laughs.