Theatre review: Blithe Spirit @
York Theatre Royal

Published by The Arts Desk

Some people say that, in the age of theatrical consultants, narrative deconstruction, and the so-called "multimedia performance", conventional theatre no longer cuts the mustard. But there are still those large swathes of any audience who love a smooth journey between a beginning, a middle, and an end. Who shuffle politely past others towards their seats, look expectantly towards the stage curtain, and know exactly what's coming. And then go home smiling rather than thinking afterwards.

Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit  is unapologetically a play for that public. It was mainstream before the word existed, becoming among the most successful shows that the West End and Broadway had ever seen when it was first produced in the 1940s. Even today, it is rarely far from view, as a concurrent West End production starring Angela Lansbury makes clear. In many ways the definition of the classic British farce, it features men sharing dry martinis and protracted anecdotes with women in ballgowns as they converge upon a comfortable Kent home populated by swells.

The story begins when novelist Charles Condomine (Andrew Hall) invites clairvoyant Madame Arcati (Nichola McAuliffe) to conduct a séance in his home, in a bid to gather material for his next book. Charles's idea backfires when the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (Amy Rockson), turns up and repeatedly attempts to disrupt his marriage to second wife Ruth (Caroline Harker), who cannot see or hear her. For the next two-and-a-half hours, key ingredients of the traditional British mad house - folly, clumsiness, accusations, stiff upper lips, and of course abundantly crossed wires - take shape alongside the plot's twists and turns.

One quirky element of the York Theatre Royal production, directed by Damian Cruden, is the use of a voiceover (by Blair Plant, who also plays Dr Bradman) to introduce each scene with Coward's stage directions. Yet for all the invention behind this witty touch, which the Master would surely himself have admired, the show somehow fails to produce the audience laughter it probably should. Granted, most things that may once have provoked uncontrollable fits of the giggles among the wartime public only get sporadic chuckles today. Still, more could have been made of the script's persistent humour.

That said, much of Coward's wisdom continues to pack a punch - "how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit?" being one particular gem that I'll be keeping between my ears for a while. And the cast are terrific, notably Rockson, who manages to be convincingly tormenting, flattering and insecure as the high-maintenance apparition that is Elvira. McAuliffe's Arcati as expected steals the show with her bombastic demeanour and bizarre rituals.

The time-honored British farce may never be the future of British theatre, and there's perhaps not much more juice to squeeze out of this 70-year-old play. But like a true classic, Blithe Spirit  will rarely disappoint its audience. There are plenty of warm smiles as we are led out the theatre's exit and I find myself making a mental note of a play that is of its time - that phrase "of its time" very much underscored in my head.


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These words, like this

I start with a blank canvas. With nothing. Sometimes I start with words I’ve copied from an idea I had weeks, months ago. Not this time. I write the words on a page, like this. These words, like this. It makes me feel like I’m getting somewhere. I don’t want this – a self-indulgent story about me writing a story – to be the only place I get to. I want the place to be a journey. This is my starting point, this time.

Maybe I should write something about a conversation I was part of the other day. A couple of old friends, chatting about when they were kids. They stole a large, cheap bottle of whiskey from a convenience store, which is now out of business. They took it from behind the counter when the fat owner wasn’t looking, and ran out of the shop. They were chased around the block by some passing police officers – that’s bad luck – and made it perhaps a mile down the road, before they decided they could run faster without the bottle, so they threw it into some bushes near this factory and sped away. They were never caught by the police officers. Years later they were telling this story to someone else, and in doing so, wondered whether the bottle would still be in the same place they threw it. So they went back to have a look, and yes, there it was. The label had rotted off, but the dark orange whiskey inside was still there. And then they opened it and got drunk, belatedly. See, that is a cool story. Maybe nothing more than that.

So anyway, I’ve looked up and seen the blank canvas dotted with rows of lines, letters, words, and perhaps I’m making progress. Not checked the word count yet, though. Maybe 200? Oh, 306 – it’s in the bottom left of this Word document. I hadn’t realised that before. It’s important I keep writing. It’s the only chance I’ve had in a long time to get to write something I don’t have to – I’m a journalist in my day job – now, tonight. Oh, I’m fully aware it doesn’t always work like that. Inspiration can’t be arranged, sure. It would be pointless if it could be. But also convenient. Sporadic progress is quite frustrating. You want to be able to make short, but regular progress as a creative writer. The last story I wrote was perhaps a month ago. And now I have the chance to start something new.

Do I want a Pop Tart? Maybe. NO. I don’t. I shouldn’t. I’m not even hungry. Oh, this is it, I’m slowing down, losing momentum, now that an external pleasure has been flirted. In the zone I need to be. In the zone is thinking about memories, about love, tragedy, people, etc. Typing trains of thought gives a self-illusion of creative productivity – that’s why I’m doing this. So I’m back to the start. The canvas is filling up and I’ve checked in to my desk for the night. I have tonight, only tonight, the first night in a long time, to come up with something. Not for a publisher – God, no – just for me. My self-esteem, my identity, yada yada. And for you.

Just now I’ve decided the person in this story is called Helen. She starts her life in my story at the breakfast table. Not a middle America, Little House on the Prairie type breakfast table, with an actual cloth held down with pancakes and jam pots. A dull, modern breakfast bar. She sits on her stool and faces the wall, where there’s no TV or anything. She eats quickly to get out of her chair and do something more interesting. It’s important for me, the author, not to go back at this point, but I am going to anyway. The breakfast bar is based heavily, entirely even, on the one that was fitted at my previous address. It was, I think, a granite surface, and the wall was white. I ate Pop Tarts on there. You see how I came to the breakfast scene, now, if you’ve been following. I’ve just realised it myself. Helen eats Pop Tarts on the stool. She’s cut them into four, so they are easier to put in her mouth, and so the filling cools down more quickly. But it means that some of the red, strawberry jam, which lies within the pastry, had dropped onto her jeans. It leaves a dark, glossy stain, which frustrates her a little. Although she’s determined not to let it bother her too much, as her friend gave a speech within a conversation about life, and it made her think that she worries way too much. That bit didn’t happen to me, it just happened to Helen.

Helen has brown hair. She likes smoking and that’s what she does when she finishes her Pop Tart. She likes smoking outside, particularly. When it’s cold, and there are no other sounds but her, exhaling. She’s standing outside the house, by herself. Out the back, with the overgrown bits of grass at the edge of her square lawn, blowing at her feet, blowing against her leg. That sentence may need restructuring.

It’s a typically overcast day, but it would be too perfect if this meant that Helen was feeling similarly typical, mediocre, non-emotional. She is actually incredibly emotional. She’s reflecting on a profound experience as she gazes off into the middle distance. A few hours before, at a party in the night – she hasn’t yet been to sleep – she was told by someone who she used to like, that they used to like her. In private, within a room so full of people – bursting with other conversations and anecdotes and bragging and singing – that it seemed private. So she’s thinking about that right now, as a long collection of ash starts to droop at the end of her cigarette.

She’s standing there so still and smoking it so gently that the ash never falls until she throws the cigarette in the brown bin, where it floats in water next to others from other solitary moments. Helen lets the brown bin lid drop. She opens the door and heads inside to do something else. She’s wearing her shoes, again from the previous night, so decides it’s a sign that she must go out into the world. She has no direction. It’s a Sunday. She leaves through the front door and rounds the corner of her driveway, heading into a graveyard, where she sometimes gets high, alone.

The place is so full of the pink and mango colours of the flowers and weeds that she hasn’t seen as it’s usually pitch black when she’s here to get high. No one else is around as she walks, her walking boots making no sound as heel-toe, heel-toe, she navigates her way around the 19th-century gravestone, frowning by default, as she lies, deep in thought.

The mundane experience that affected her profoundly, is what she is thinking about. Not the one aforementioned. The thing that that admission, that the guy she used to like used to like her, in the small circle of the two of them, within the bursting room that was warm and smoky, led to. Basically, she ended up sleeping with him. So vivid, its memory is to her – it only happened a few hours ago – as she walks through the graveyard’s exit and into the main square of the town. Helen breathes more heavily when she recalls the more intimate and particularly physical moments of that encounter. It’s not like it happens to her all the time. In fact, that’s the first time anything like that’s happened in 18 months. He whispered things in her ear, she recalls. She winces when she remembers what she said back. Again, this totally doesn’t happen to her all the time. All the wincing and breathing heavily makes passing strangers look up at her and wonder what’s on her mind. Some of the people aren’t strangers.

Helen reaches for her cigarettes, but remembers where she left them before she even touches her left pocket where she usually keeps them. The wind would make them more difficult to light out here anyway. So she thinks about heading back. Stands there in limbo, for a while. It’s Sunday, and she has no direction, you see. She decides to head back to her house. Blossom falls from a tree into her hair. Maybe she’ll go home and watch a film, maybe someone will tap her on the shoulder on her walk back and remind her of something she needs to do today. Maybe the guy she slept with will turn up at her front door. Maybe he’s waiting at her front door right now. Maybe he’s walking right behind her.

I just don’t know. I’m going to eat a Pop Tart.


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