Political crises, Brexit votes, economic alarm? Put it all aside, for there is a panacea: Noel Coward’s masterpiece Blithe Spirit, at the Devonshire Park Theatre this week, is lifting the spirits and simply delighting audiences.
That shameless escapism is actually integral to the play. It opened in 1941 in a defiant, blitz-torn West End, where theatre and the arts were making their own distinctive stand against Hitler. You wouldn’t particularly have backed Noel Coward in a brigadier’s uniform rather than a smoking jacket, but his pen and his brilliant wit really did prove as mighty as the sword.
The Master would have archly nodded approval at John Hester’s faithful, closely detailed production here at the Devonshire Park. It opens, with a period radio announcement transporting us suitably back in time, on to Geoff Gilder’s substantial and quite sumptuous set, and it is beautifully dressed. All the little things are exact, from the wigs to the way you hold your cocktail glass. Every sound and lighting cue – crucial to the plot – is right on the button.
All this, of course, would be nothing without competent acting, and this whole cast is well above competent. They take a deliciously silly premise and embrace it as if it were reality. Charles – perfectly played by a suave, matinee-idol Oliver Mellor – has remarried after the death of his first wife. But, prompted by a ham-fisted séance, first wife Elvira keeps coming back. How on earth does Charles handle two wives at war?
In other hands, this might have been a grief-laden tale of trauma: think of Truly Madly Deeply, that magnificent Rickman and Stevenson study of bereavement. Indeed, Coward himself hesitated in the writing of Blithe Spirit, uneasy at confronting his wartime audiences with yet more death. But his wit, his lightness of touch, his brilliant dialogue simply float the story above any darkness.
An outstanding Michelle Morris, as the deceased Elvira, is by turns wafting and waspish, and second wife Ruth is played with just the right exasperation and bewilderment by Anna Brecon. The hints of sexual frisson, always present in Coward but always understated, are beautifully teased out.
Madame Arcati, the medium who prompts the mayhem, is extravagantly, fabulously played by Judy Buxton. In a swirl of floral robes, a middle-aged hippy ahead of her time, she just delights in the role. And her tweed-clad homage in the second half to Coward’s original Arcati, the great Margaret Rutherford, is lovely and very apt.
A fair few years ago, fresh out of drama school, Judy’s first ever professional role was in this very play, as Edith the maid – strikingly well played here, all naïve and hapless, by Polly Jordan, whose delivery and body language are perfectly observed. Ben Roddy and Katy Dean, as family friends Dr and Mrs Bradman, lend accomplished and humorous support.
It all adds up: amusing, entertaining and – after the last few weeks of national news – perfectly blissful. Go on, escape while you can.
By Kevin Anderson.
Blithe Spirit at the Devonshire Park Theatre, Eastbourne from Tuesday 28 June – Saturday 2 July; with nightly performances at 7.45pm and Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm. Tickets are priced at £15.50 - £21.50 with concessions available, to book or for more information call the box office on 01323 412000 or online www.eastbournetheatres.co.uk.