BLITHE Spirit was Noel Coward’s favourite among his plays.
“"I knew from the first morning's work that I was on the right track, and it would be difficult, with that situation and those characters, to go far wrong,” he wrote of his "very gay superficial comedy about death" in his 1941 diary.
After seeing a production elsewhere two years ago, Rowntree Players’ director Caroline Heppell was determined to present the ghostly goings-on of Coward’s supernatural comedy at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre.
Drawn to “the words, the era and the characters”, Heppell has proved Coward’s assessment right that you can’t go far wrong.
She is aided by her set designers, Paul Mantle, Richard Scott and Howard Ella, who successfully master the 1940s’ look of the Kent drawing room of gentleman novelist Charles Condomine (Andy Welch) and his prim second wife, Ruth (Leni Ella). One night they are joined by the ever-so-nice Dr Bradman (Martyn Hunter) and his wife Violet (Julie Harrison) for a séance to be conducted by bicycling, sandwich-loving, eccentric local spirit medium Madame Arcati (Chris Higgins), a character with a whirlwind impact in the manner of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell.
Ostensibly, sceptical Charles has organised the evening for research purposes for his next book, wishing to dismiss the world of séance as hocus-pocus, just as Coward would do too. Except that Coward mines so much anarchic comedy in the process, all because of the aforementioned “situation: the unexpected appearance of “morally untidy” Elvira (Marie-Louise Surgenor), Charles’s maddening, deceitful yet alluring first wife, who passed over to the other side seven years ago and has unfinished business to complete.
Only the cocktail-fuelled, trouble-stirring Charles can see her, hear her and converse with her: a delicious set-up for comedy, where Coward orchestrates the confusions and turmoil with panache and a devilry worthy of Shakespeare’s Puck.
The play has a combination of surface gloss and darker undercurrents that gradually take over, and Heppell’s fast-moving production makes that journey as smoothly as the dry Martinis go down. Along the way, the stage effects – lights on the blink, paintings and items moving without being touched – are pulled off with aplomb by Mantle, Howard Ella, Liz Lawn and Ginette Alexander.
Heppell’s cast has great fun, relishing both the havoc wreaked by Coward and the demands of the Forties period in style, movement and manners, although several accents could be more southern-posh.
To add to these irresistible high spirits, Lisa Green gives a Father Ted Irish spin to housemaid Edith, making her even more comically frantic and nervy. Scene-stealing at its best.
Blithe Spirit, Rowntree Players, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, tonight at 7.30pm; tomorrow at 2.30pm and 7.30pm. Box office: 07927 026071, positickets.co.uk or on the door.