When master playwright and actor Noël Coward penned Blithe Spirit in 1941, London was standing its ground while enduring the Blitz. Written in Wales over six days, there is no better description than the one given by the writer himself: “It’s a very gay, superficial comedy about a ghost”. Six weeks later, it was on stage and seven decades later it still sparkles on at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, the second production this season under new Artistic Director Elizabeth Newman.
Created to bring some laughter to Londoners who trampled over rubble to get to the Piccadilly Theatre for tickets, it was an instant success and has entertained audiences since – including a recent revival on Broadway headed by Angela Lansbury playing Madam Arcati. Following in her footsteps is Deirdre Davis who gives us a wonderful, slightly mad, new-age incarnation with hippy skirts and frizzled hair, and enjoying every moment of it. This is another stand-out performance from the actor who gave audiences last season the titular [The] Last Witch and Mari in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.
Another highlight of the show is the set and costume design by Adrian Rees, which immediately situates the story in a très chic all-white apartment, including furnishings that are only ever seen in Grand Designs. It oozes money, privilege and upper class-ness; a theme so often explored by Coward who came from a down at heel middle class family in the suburbs. Rees’ block colour outfits and matching shoes for Ruth are definitely a ‘must have’. Played here by Claire Dargo, in her strong performance we recognise Coward’s uptight perfectionist living with a selfish, whining husband Charles – a man whose unappealing doppelgänger we have all certainly encountered.
Playing the ghost of Elvira – the wife who materialises under Madam Arcati’s spell – Barbara Hockaday vamps beautifully in a stunning red dress. She offers another delightful performance that is accentuated by Rees’ design. The cast are ably supported by Harry Long as Dr. Bradman and Tilly-Mae Millbrook as Mrs Bradman, who are the dinner party guests invited to the seance with Madam Arcati, organised by Charles as an inexpensive form of entertainment and research for a new book.
Of course, the scene-stealer is the maid Edith – or Eddie, rather, – in this production portrayed by David Rankine. He manages to wring every comic moment out of his fleeting moments on stage, with his long legs and mobile face saying all that is necessary.
Directed by Gemma Fairlie, this production will fill the comfortable seats at the Pitlochry all summer long. Although there are at times some minor teething issues related to the light and pace of the performance, these will surely be resolved as the season progresses. If you are looking for an afternoon in the theatre to whisk you away from today’s depressingly dismal world, then this is the show for you.