Review: Blithe Spirit (Mirvish)

Blithe Spirit

Mirvish presents a new production of Noel Coward’s play Blithe Spirit starring Angela Lansbury in Toronto

Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit is a utter cream puff of a comedy, completely devoid of nutritive value, but perfectly scrumptious. In the sitting-room of novelist Charles Condomine, a dinner party culminates with the local medium summoning forth a visitor from beyond the veil: Condomine’s deceased first wife, who proceeds to ruin a vase, the party, and his marriage. Now cohabitating with both spouses, Charles tries desperately to send her back — but how do you dispatch someone who isn’t there?

What’s best about this production is that director Michael Blakemore isn’t afraid of hurting this creaky old play: most stagings (including recent outings at Stratford and Soulpepper) almost handle it as a museum artifact, to be exhibited but not played with, lest something get broken. Blakemore’s willingness to alter language and staging gives this version a modern edge and finds new jokes and insights in unexpected places. Moments which are meant to shock or scandalize the audience have a new resonance, while the marriages (Charles is turned into a “spectral bigamist”) acquire a tenderness which has been absent from these previous attempts.

Jemima Rooper, as the deceased spouse Elvira, is puckish and dangerous even from the very beginning; second wife Ruth (Charlotte Parry) is quite right to think there’s a snake in the grass. Joined by Charles Edward, who plays the novelist Condomine as an overgrown schoolboy, the three make a marvellous love triangle: Elvira craves attention and drama, but paints a most alluring picture; Ruth has the warmth of an icebox but his best interests at heart.

The side-cast includes the utterly respectable Bradmans (Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley), dear friends and utter skeptics, whose genteel calmness help balance the ludicrous exertions of the main plot; and the scene-stealing Susan Louise O’Connor, whose role cannot be discussed without entirely spoiling the ending, but who — assisted by director Blakemore’s alterations — finally elevates a very important role from trivial bit-part to a fully-formed, and necessary, character.

You probably want to hear about Angela Lansbury as the medium Madame Arcati; she’s good. Very, very good. Arcati is a gift to actresses over the age of 40, and Lansbury shows that, even pushing 90 (she was 89 on the evening Mooney on Theatre caught the show), she’s still got her chops. Traditionally, Arcati is played as an eccentric, all bubbles and polka dots, and tends to chew the rest of the cast off-stage. Lansbury underplays her as a prim-but-not-stern professional, and the platform this creates for the rest of the cast to play along — rather than being dominated — is a wise and welcome change. This is, to be sure, Lansbury’s show: you can’t miss the venue, look for the one with her face on every single poster. But while she might draw us into the building, it’s the entire cast, working together, which draws us into the play.

I would be remiss not to mention Simon Higlett’s costume and scenic design, which is consistently outstanding, especially the ladies’ hair. Charlotte Parry looks every bit as perfect dressed in an evening gown as she does all bundled up for an open-top car ride, and that’s no mean feat.

Coward’s wit still sparkles, and this production soars: bold, daring and full of surprises. I’ve never heard an audience laugh so much at Blithe Spirit!

Details

  • Blithe Spirit plays through March 15, 2015 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. West.
  • Ticket prices vary widely: cheap seats for $45, premium seats for $150; see website for details.
  • Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (1-800-461-3333), or in-person from any Mirvish box office.
  • Be advised that this show involves use of strobe lights and artificial fog effects.
  • Although the content of Blithe Spirit is appropriate for all ages, its subject matter may not be of interest to young children.

Photograph of the cast (clockwise from noon: Angela Lansbury; Sandra Shipley; Simon Jones; Charlotte Parry; Charles Edwards) by Robert J. Saferstein. Photograph is of the 2014 West End Revival, and alterations have been made to the design and staging.

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