Theatre Review: Blithe Spirit has quick wit with fine presentation

REVIEW

What: Blithe Spirit

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Where: McPherson Playhouse

When: To June 19

Rating: 4 (out of five)

The chief pleasure of Noel Coward's plays lies in his prickly wit. We experience a frisson each time one of his martini-sipping sophisticates skewers a wife, husband or friend with a quip so sly, the victim hardly realizes the insidious sting.

Victoria's Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre has opened its third season with a sturdy revival of Coward's comedy, Blithe Spirit. A wartime play that premièred in 1941, the playwright employs the oldfashioned ghost story as the plot device around which to wrap his witticisms. This is a handsome-looking, welldirected production, although some may find Coward's steadfast reliance on spooky misunderstandings a bit tiresome by the second half.

Director Glynis Leyshon's decision to cast Brian Linds in the role of Madame Arcati is a good one. This cross-gender switch-up adds an extra fizz to the proceedings. It helps, too, that Linds is a clever comic actor who squeezes laughs from a seemingly innocent line and is equally proficient with physical comedy.

On Thursday night, Linds - big-bosomed and clutching a carpet bag - took care not to ham things up too much (the temptation must be terrible). This is wise, as a scenery-chewing turn would sully the play's elegant tone. Still, I suspect if he truly lets loose as the run progresses, audiences will lap it like gravy.

Blithe Spirit is about a novelist, Charles, who wants to research the occult for his next book. With this in mind, he invites a medium, Madame Arcati, to his home. The eccentric and domineering kook conducts a seance, which inadvertently summons forth the ghost of his first wife, Elvira. For some reason, only Charles is able to see the spectre.

This device is the farce's secret weapon. "Be quiet, you're behaving like a guttersnipe," Charles instructs Elvira. This, of course, offends his current wife, Ruth, who - unable to see or hear Elvira - assumes the remark is directed at her. And so the fun begins.

Elvira isn't one of those benevolent spirits who helps you sidestep future misfortunes. She's there to cause mischief - primarily, she's keen to make things miserable for Ruth so she can reassume her wifely role. Things go horribly awry when one of Elvira's schemes backfires. At the finale, Charles - the socalled "astral bigamist" - is left with more ghosts than he can handle. As he makes his final exit, his home is plagued by poltergist hijinx. These special effects were smoothly executed on opening night.

The best performances of Coward boast an effervescence akin to quaffing good champagne. Certainly, this cast delivers lines with a commendable lightness and sprightliness. Christopher Hunt made Charles pleasingly elegant, harried and faintly prissy. Ruth Brown, as wife No. 2, also offered a solid performance. However, I think the role requires the character to be a touch more domineering, with undertones of nastiness. (This would make more sense of Charles's satisfaction at being rid of her. And she's not nearly rude enough to Madame Arcati when the medium is summoned for a second time.)

Helen Taylor understands that Elvira must be a sexy rogue. This could be played up even further, although the danger, as ever, is upsetting the play's elegant tone. The cast is competently rounded by Lindsey Vukovic and Michael Armstrong in the rather thankless roles of the Bradmans, family friends. Rielle Braid is a sparky presence as the maid.

Pam Johnson's set is terrific - a stately English manor complete with a giant fireplace and brobdingnagian French doors. It fills the vast stage space at the McPherson Playhouse beautifully, creating a potent atmosphere. At the same time, careful attention has been paid to period detail. achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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