By Noel Coward. Directed by Kate Blackhurst.
Canberra Repertory Society.
Theatre 3, Acton. Until December 6.
Blithe Spirit is Noel Coward at his irreverent best. It opens calmly enough in the 1940s home of the Condomines. Middle-class, self-possessed, witty, self-assured, author Charles (Peter Holland) and his second wife Ruth (Emma Wood) seem to be ignoring the war and focusing on the impending visit of local medium Madame Arcati (Liz St Clair-Long).
Author Charles is doing research on the tricks of spiritualism for a book while the calm and practical Ruth is concerned with curbing the speed at which maid Edith (Yanina Clifton) rushes from one task to the next.
When Madame Arcati arrives her seance unleashes the spirit of Charles' first wife Elvira (Anita Davenport) who moves in. Can she be sent back? Is Charles over Elvira? The battles of the resulting but strange menage a trois become the substance of the comedy.
Under Kate Blackhurst's brisk direction it moves at a good pace and Coward's 1940s England looks and sounds mostly right. Holland gives a clear performance as the twice-married, much-bemused Charles. Clifton's Edith, evidently a young maid out of her depth in a first job, is suitably funny. Don Smith as the sceptical Dr Bradman and Elaine Noon as his well-meaning but somewhat obtuse wife expand the character range nicely.
St Clair Long's Madame Arcati is a wild figure in gypsy velvets and a huge hat who upsets the neatness of the Condomines' lives without compunction. There have been more domestic-looking Arcatis but this Arcati has a successfully larger-than-life image that St Clair Long carries very well.
As Elvira, Davenport is given a look that makes her fey and feathery rather than glamorous but the free-spirited ghost, the "blithe spirit" of Keats' poem and of Coward's title is touchingly there, especially in her scenes with her widower Charles.
Coward's women are often creatures of feeling who are shown dealing with pressures. It's Wood's very fine performance as Ruth that dominates the show. This woman goes from being in control of her comfortable life to coping with a first wife who is dead but very much present. Wood's Ruth never quite unravels but sustains the tensions beautifully until the play's logical but somewhat bleak ending.
The elegant set designed by Andrew Kay received a round of applause on opening night before a line was uttered and certainly earns it with a range of shenanigans in the closing moments. It is hard to see why the lighting is not also allowed to let rip at that point and why Elvira's ghostliness is not extended beyond grey costume and silver makeup to include a bit of mystical illumination. A pale green follow spot (not the dark Demon King variety), discreetly operated to cover a very busy character, might have done the trick.
However, it's a confident and good-humoured production for the most part and it is lovely to be reminded of just how cuttingly funny and crazy Coward's plays can be.
Correction: An earlier version of this review had the wrong closing date for this production.