REVIEW: Blithe Spirit by Shakespeare at the George

From left, Sir John Major, director Charlotte Maylor, chairman Richard Brown, and Dame Norma Major.

From left, Sir John Major, director Charlotte Maylor, chairman Richard Brown, and Dame Norma Major. - Credit: Archant

It is hard to believe, as it is when one sees a Rattigan play today, that some of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century were deeply unfashionable once and perceived as ‘box office poison’ for so many years.

This injustice has long since been addressed and Blithe Spirit has seen itself restored as a classic of the genre.

The Shakespeare at the George company in their first foray into non-Shakespeare territory in the delightfully appropriate setting of the Manchester Room at the George Hotel, Huntingdon presented Noel Coward’s masterpiece as their very first production of SatG in the Parlour to a delighted and appreciative audience. We hope that this will be the first of many such shows.

It seems that the rehearsal period was not without incident as it was announced to us that Simon Maylor had taken on the leading and wordy role of Charles Condomine from an indisposed Martin Woodruff a couple of weeks prior to opening. Many, many congratulations must go to Simon for learning such a role so thoroughly and well and in some ways, I wonder whether, if the programmes had not been printed with Martin named, that it would not have been better to save the information until after the show because Simon inhabited the role with confidence and vigour and needed no apologies whatsoever.

His was a masterful interpretation of an ambivalent part: is he a good man or a bad one or a bit of both like all of us? Is what we as an audience see that which Charles wants us to see and has it all been planned meticulously from the start? In this production, we are left to make up our own minds.

In the clever and elegant drawing room set beloved of Coward, an Art Deco context of black and white awaits us from the start.

The clever use of curtains, reversible cushion covers and costume recalls a period of elegance and hedonism more in keeping with Charles’ first wife Elvira and as time passes we begin to see the more stolid, sensible, utilitarian second wife Ruth exert her influence on the surroundings as well as the red of something more sinister and passionate. A conflict between two very different views of England is called to mind.

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Charlotte Maylor’s thoughtful and well directed production was a delight of both style and substance. The effects: lighting, music, sound effects, set construction and properties worked together seamlessly to create both the magical and the mundane required in this technically challenging play. The gramophone repeating ‘Always’ whilst ‘dancing’ to its own music was a good example, as was the denouement of the deconstructing room. Stage manager, Kevin Connor, deserves applause for the quick, slick changes as does the set construction and props teams for making the most of a relatively small stage.

At the centre of it all stands the figure of Charles, mostly in a haze of dry Martinis and home counties’ ennui. No wonder, Madame Arcati has been called upon for a diverting séance.

Simon Maylor played Charles engagingly as a bit of an endearing bumbler with the cold heart of a philanderer and possible murderer emerging convincingly as time progressed.

Steph Hamer’s Madame Arcati was rather more elegantly beautiful than the Irene Handls, Patricia Routledges, Margaret Rutherfords and even Angela Lansburys of past incarnations.

Whilst it was very difficult to believe that she had cycled seven miles to reach the house in her immaculate costume, we were soon mesmerized by her elaborate trances and dances and mastery of eccentricity.

Kevin Wallace and Jo Travers-Brown provided a realistic centre to the play as the ‘normal’ doctor and wife if Mrs Bradman’s piercing giggle can be considered the norm. They inhabited their parts truthfully, extracting many laughs from their incomprehension and incredulity.

Lucy Crawford’s Ruth was an unsympathetic one and, true to Coward, we started to understand why Charles might have made a mistake second time around too. The stage business where Elvira remained unseen was particularly well acted.

Louise West as Edith the maid, was excellent with superb comic timing and a seemingly effortless ability to be funny and touching simultaneously. Her dexterity, or perhaps that should be deliberate lack of dexterity, with props provided many of the laughs.

Star of the show by a long distance was Lynne Livingstone’s Elvira. This was consummate professional acting at its finest: she looked good, sounded good and inhabited the character to perfection. She did not play Elvira: she was Elvira. Everything from the wonderful dress, hair and shoes to the drawling sensuous voice and smouldering look was right. Her mimed sequence of being dragged around the stage was a masterclass. We believed in her and therefore we believed the incredible plot.

This was a most entertaining production that raised many laughs, causing people to jump out of their seats and listen afresh to Coward’s wonderful dialogue. I enjoyed the play and the performances tremendously as did the capacity audience.

SatG made a terrific job of something not written by Shakespeare and I look forward to many more such theatrical experiences.