Drama Theatre, March 25


The perfect encapsulation of this production – starring Courtney Act – came when Bessie Holland (playing Ruth Condomine) started to giggle. She and Brigid Zengeni (Madame Arcati) were facing each other on the sofa, and the hilarity was suddenly too much for Holland. Of course once she began to titter, the audience’s laughter quadrupled, especially as Zengeni was all but biting her tongue to avoid joining in.

Courtney Act. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Director Paige Rattray (for Sydney Theatre Company) has taken Noel Coward’s witty farce, and stretched it and kneaded it and stretched it again, until its zaniness is full-frontal, wearing the carefully accentuated melodrama for a fig-leaf. In fact it develops an almost hallucinatory quality: Blithe Spirit through the looking glass, if you will.

Some of this quality was implicit in the text. Having landed on the idea of a husband being visited by his deceased first wife, Coward knocked the play out in six days flat, and barely changed a punctuation mark thereafter – a mad feat of virtuosity and an antidote to the trauma of war-torn 1941. Nonetheless, I’m sure he’d have considered his play more clever, elegant and witty more than zany, even if it was about mediums conjuring ghosts.

One thing he assuredly would not have expected was that Edith, the harassed maid, would all but steal the show. Yet that’s exactly what Megan Wilding does with her every appearance, so you come to long for Edith to come bumbling back and bring the house down again. Looking bizarre in designer David Fleischer’s caricatured costume, Wilding hits upon this riotous note of trying desperately to satisfy Ruth, her mistress, while exhibiting zero aptitude for doing so.

Brigid Zengeni. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Intrinsic to Rattray’s conception was casting Courtney Act (Shane Jenek’s alter ego) as Elvira, the dead wife’s ghost. It almost works, and may come to do so more completely. Act certainly looks the part: rather than having been doused in the cold grey that Coward stipulates, she is a mind-boggling pale gold, with glitter around the eyes that flashes and shimmers, even as she shimmies and gyrates. Described as “morally untidy”, she is assuredly a first wife worthy of making the second one jealous. The current problem is that Act’s star-power out-drags her acting, so that while her looks are suitably high-voltage, her flouncing and preening tend to lower the on-stage electricity generated by her colleagues.

Matt Day is splendid as Charles Condomine, the author whose desire to write a novel involving the occult sparks the whole catastrophe. His boundless egocentricity is emphasised by the portrait of himself that garnishes the living room wall, and Day provides an upper-crust pomposity into which his two wives can sink their teeth.

Courtney Act and Matt Day. Photos: Prudence Upton.

Holland’s Ruth is consistently entertaining, and Zengeni’s Madame Arcati – the only character for whom one feels Coward had genuine affection – is always fun, even if this production sees her upstaged by Edith, Ruth and, surprisingly, Dr Bradman. Rattray has cast Tracy Mann in drag as the staid sceptic, and Fleischer has dressed her in a kilt and such fiery hair, whiskers and eyebrows as could raise the dead by themselves. As with Wilding’s Edith, you regret there’s not more of Mann’s mad doctor. Completing the cast is an amusing Nancy Denis as Mrs Bradman.

Not many shows need someone credited as a “magic and illusions consultant”, but this one does, and Adam Mada makes us gasp in all the right places. Even with its flat patches, this one funny night out.