THEATRE REVIEW: BLITHE SPIRIT
Pictured: Susie Burnett, Seana McKenna
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
04 JUNE 2013
STRATFORD — The Stratford Festival closed out an opening week best charitably described as a very mixed bag on a positive note Saturday, opening its latest production of Noel Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT on the Avon Stage. Once again, it’s a hit and not surprisingly, it has Brian Bedford’s fingerprints all over it, as so many of Stratford assignations with Coward do.
But this time out, Bedford, who’s carved an impressive career for himself as a leading man in the Coward canon, both here and elsewhere, has opted to work his magic behind the scenes, stepping in to direct and proving, in the process, that he knows his way around a good Coward comedy regardless of the role he plays. And when it comes to Coward comedies, BLITHE SPIRIT is certainly one of the best — a simple, silly tale of a successful writer who finds himself in a state of spiritual bigamy when a seance he’s arranged to research an upcoming novel goes horribly awry and lumbers him not only with his current wife but with his first wife as well, despite the fact she’s been dead for seven years or so.
In casting SPIRIT, Bedford has a few aces up his sleeve, not the least of which is the rock-solid Ben Carlson in the role of Charles, in whose luxurious home — take a bow, designers Simon Higlett (sets), Katherine Lubienski (costumes) and Paul Miller (lights) — the entire play is set. In Carlson, Bedford could have hoped to land only one leading man more capable of perfect pitch in the role — and he was busy directing the play, it seems.
Bedford also scored big when he landed Seana McKenna as the dippy Madame Arcati, the rumpled medium-at-large responsible for unleashing the spiritual tempest in Charles’ particular teapot. Meanwhile, as the two wives, past and present, Bedford was handed a bag of mixed blessings of which he makes the most.
In the role of Ruth, Charles’ present wife, Sara Topham certainly has the comedic chops, but this season, first as Juliet and now in SPIRIT, she demonstrates a tendency to stridency that is tiresome. Meanwhile, as Elvira, the late wife, late to the party, Michelle Giroux establishes once again that she can drain every single ounce of energy from a scene by simply making an appearance, but happily Bedford is polished enough as a director that he is able to restore both pace and actress and soon has things ticking along like clockwork once again. In supporting roles, his cast is rounded out by fine performances from Wendy Thatcher and James Blendick, as the visiting Bradmans, and from Susie Burnett, mining maximum laughs from her role as Edith, the awkward maid-in-training.
Save for being permeated with a certain earnestness at odds with the SPIRIT of title, this is a fine production, proving once again that the best way to get out of a mixed bag of an opening week is to follow Brian Bedford’s lead and take the Coward’s way out.