Saturday, 22 November 2014

Blithe Spirit, Canberra Rep

What makes a production work? Is it the acting? The set? The script? How about when all three appear to be firing but yet it still doesn't quite float?

To start with, the script - Coward's script combines a bit of the "lovers reunited" energies of "Private Lives" with the utterly eccentric Madame Arcati and a fair bit more plot involved than usual to provide a witty evening of quips, bitching and cocktails. There's also, as this production uncovers, a little bit of sexism, racisim and classism (as the characters variously mock women, indians and the servants), although this is played fairly straight (with the main recovery largely being that Emma Wood's Ruth, in particular, doesn't take the sexism lying down but clearly resents each sting),

The acting is largely fine, and in some cases better than fine. Wood is, for mine, the highlight ... which may indicate an underlying problem, in that this is a comedy where the best performance is the most straightlaced of the lead characters - comedy, particularly this comedy, is about letting inhibitions loose, discovering joy in unexpected places. Wood is, as the part demands, uptight, sensible, rational and calm until the moment when her marriage is rudely disrupted by the return visit of the ghost of her husband's ex-wife - then she's tense, disturbed and engaging. 

Elsewhere, things are more mixed. Peter Holland is a delightful performer, but in this produciton he's way too laid back, way too often. The return of his ex-wife should excite and enliven him - too often Holland is sprawling across the couch, comfortably settled in. Anita Davenport has a gorgeously kittenish voice and has, elsewhere, shown the ability to be damn sexy, but her Elvira is more a playful friend than a seductive threat in the household (this may be partially due to her costume - the cape and feather boa are nice for her to play with, but the nightie underneath is way too flat and figure-concealing to allow Davenport to bring all the sexy required). I recall last time Davenport and Holland were up against one another in "Out of Order" the sparks flew far more, so it's not a question necessarily of the actors not having chemistry as it not being suitably bottled. 

Liz StClair Long's Madame Arcati is a delightful scene-stealer when she shows up (her dancing moves as she goes into a seance being a particular highlight) but there are moments when she, again, lets the pacing slide off track and rather than continuing rolling comedy, we get intermittent amusement. Yanina Clifton's Edith is a delightfully unsure-of-herself-maid and brings additional amusment when she can, though it isn't exactly a part that can carry the evening. 

Andrew Kay's set is grand, imposing, and does all the clever-ghost-tricks with aplomb (with the assistance of Dot Russell and the rest of the stagecrew), although there is some strange furniture-arranging on it that leads to the stage having strange gaps on it and people having to move chairs and tables around a lot more than seems entirely sensible. 

In the program notes, Director Kate Blackhurst suggests the secret of acting, as per Noel Coward, is "learn to speak clearly, to project your voice without shouting - and to move about the stage gracefully without bumping into people". I'd suggest the secret of directing is that you find ways for people to bump into one another, to make connections between each other - at the moment, what she's delivered is a production full of isolated individuals rather than a rounded story.

In short, this is an evening which I found myself liking elements of the acting and the production without ever quite being captured and carried along into the pure comic raptures I was hoping for. So ... it's okay but I wanted better. 

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