The Theatre on Chester: Blithe Spirit - Review by Joshua Straw
Updated: Apr 21
You know that thing all people experience when your long-dead ex makes a sudden comeback in order to complicate things with your current lover? No? Well, rest assured, after you go and see The Theatre on Chester’s production of Blithe Spirit, you’ll know EXACTLY what I’m talking about. After many delays and pauses due to the pandemic and beyond, Theatre on Chester has successfully delivered to us a story that makes thoughtful comments on the themes of love, loyalty, deception, and the weighty expectations borne from past relationships.
The production quality of this show needs to be applauded. Director Cate Cunningham has a fantastic team that has clearly taken the delays of the past few years as an opportunity to strengthen the elements of the show and deliver something spectacularly real on stage. The lighting of the show, led by Wal Moore and James Miller Argue, was amazingly well done; it allowed for effortless transitions between different times of day and scenes while also being a key way to establish tone and the presence of otherworldly forces. The sound is well integrated by Charlotte Wiltshire, with well-considered sound choices and volume adjustments that felt seamless. At times, this truly made me feel as though we were a part of the story rather than just viewers.
The design of the set, envisioned by Cunningham and brought to life by Luke Wallyn and the other set builders, was perfect. All elements seemed to have been carefully considered, and it was a joy to see such care going into the construction of the scene. It not only complimented the characters but also made the space feel true to the story.
Oh, the costumes! Brought to life by Cunningham, Christine Rule, and the whole cast, I truly feel like it was masterfully done. All of the costume choices seemed to match the characters perfectly in order to further reveal elements of their personas. Whether it be the slightly seductive and playful attire of Elvira or the intentionally quirky and colourful garb of Madame Arcati, it just works. I was appreciative of the attention to detail for continuity’s sake and that there were a range of costumes for different characters.
A big shoutout to John Wiltshire, Claire Buick, and Wal Moore, who played a hand in the props as well as the special effects design and implementation. When I tell you that this was truly magical and exceeded my expectations, I am not joking. Some of the effects were so brilliantly pulled off that they truly caught me by surprise. This, of course, only made it all the more entertaining! Congratulations also to the Stage Managers and Assistants, Wiltshire, Linda Gock, Charlotte Wiltshire, and Bea Upton Oettel, who allowed for seamless transitions and what I imagine is the smooth running of everything behind the scenes.
Cunningham has assembled a powerful ensemble cast that plays well together on stage. Thanks to them, the audience is invited into a story that feels lived in and, sparing the otherworldly elements, real. Each member of the ensemble plays a unique role that delivers something unique and entertaining for the viewers.
Christopher Clark as Charles has one of the more challenging roles in that he is acting with cast members that only he can see. This would not have been possible without Clark’s careful characterisation of the role, and his use of emotional levels to bring strong focus to the ever-changing mentality of the character. What may at times be a poised and confident gentleman surely drifts into madness in what is surely one of the most impossible situations: How does one keep their living wife happy when their dead wife is back in the picture?
Penny Day’s Ruth is a perfect portrayal of the ‘second wife’, spiralling in her impossible competition with the first. I was amazed at the nonchalance of her dismissal of suggested jealousy, only to be strategically betrayed by the subtle body language and idiosyncrasies shown by Day. This facade changes throughout the story, but I must commend Day on her ability to showcase her character’s internal feelings on an external level to ensure that we always felt included.
Christine Rule cannot help but stand out in all the best ways in her role as Madame Arcati. She effortlessly brings the character to life, with her choices in voice, movement, and physicality clearly able to engage and entertain the viewer. Her eccentricities within the character were not only unique to her own skills but also complementary to the character herself. The wit and offbeat nature of Rule’s character earned many laughs from me, and definitely deserve a spotlight of their own. She seemed at home on stage, and it was a joy to watch.
The initial seriousness of some of the key characters in the story was effectively challenged by Madeleine Dart’s charming portrayal of the playful and vindictive Elvira. Dart brings a playful youth to the role that further elevates the cheeky and at times immature behaviours of the character, and seeing her bring the character’s emotion to life was exceptional. This culminates in making Elvira the perfect foil for Ruth and Charles’ relationship. Dart’s talent for comedic and dramatic timing is key to the comic miscommunications between the characters. You can feel her confidence up on the stage, and she steps into the role with ease and confidence.
Dr. Bradman is well presented by Bob Blunt, who clearly sets apart the character as the strongest cynic of the group. His scepticism due to his logical profession proves to be entertaining, as he is a quality sparring partner with Madam Arcati. Blunt does a commendable job of showing off the quirks of his character and turning his cynicism into something entertaining for the viewer.
He is accompanied by the presence of Mrs. Bradman, brought to life through the infectious energy of Kate Mannix. Mannix’s enthusiasm within her character was magnetic on stage, and she perfectly played the ordinary middle-class woman looking for fun and excitement beyond the mundane. As an audience member, I couldn’t help but lean in and smile at Mannix’s character and her loosely veiled intrigue with the occult. Her voice has a musical quality that never fails to draw my attention closer.
I am most surely not forgetting to cast a spotlight on Fabiola Pellegrino, who presents a wonderful Edith and brings warmth to the stage. She does a fantastic job of providing fun comical breaks and catharsis between the intense moments, and a large part of her character shines as she carries out her work of setting the stage for the next part of the story. Pellegrino’s characterisation was full of humour, and this was most clearly accomplished through her physicality throughout the story. It is a hard task to accomplish, and she has done a fantastic job.
There were a few slip-ups in line delivery at times, which I truly believe is a testament to the cast’s skill considering the quick-witted language of Noel Coward’s work. I can only imagine that as they continue to perform over the coming weeks, their delivery and reaction will become even tighter to the point that they are an unstoppable machine on stage. My only other criticism would be for the script itself at times, which, of course, the cast and director have no control over. Otherwise, there is nothing I can fault.
If you are in the mood for some amazing community theatre (and believe me, you are), then do take the time to visit the Theatre on Chester for this fabulous and thoughtful performance of Blithe Spirit. It’s clear to me that the time spent waiting to put it on was well worth the wait and a testament to the commitment of the company and director. I give the performance 4 malignant spirits back to cause mischief out of 5.