It begins with the dramatic opening chords of Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”, a flash of lightning and the vision of an ethereal Courtney Act hovering above the stage. It’s a warning, this isn’t any ordinary version of Noël Coward’s supernatural comedy.
Charles Condomine (Matt Day) is a writer in need of some reference material for a character he is writing, a supernatural medium. So he and his wife Ruth (Bessie Holland) invite the local spiritualist, Madame Arcati (Brigid Zengeni), along with a friendly couple, the Bradmans (Nancy Denis and Tracy Mann) around for a séance. When the séance unexpectedly brings forth the ghost of Charles’ late first wife, Elvira (Courtney Act), a very unusual domestic scene takes shape.
Old comedies can often look dull to contemporary eyes and I’ll admit I wasn’t entirely looking forward to watching Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Blithe Spirit. Yes, the cast looked excellent, and the casting of Shane Jenek/Courtney Act in a cis female role was interesting. Yes, I like Noël Coward, a seminal gay wit and revered writer. But just look at the recent film of Blithe Spirit – not even Dan Stevens, Isla Fisher and Judie Dench could save it! But any fears I might have had were quickly dispelled.
Why is Celine Dion being played during a Noël Coward play? It’s the kind of meta joke that sets the tone for the whole evening in which Coward’s text is treated with respect (mostly), but every moment in between is jammed with extra humour to bring the pace up to the level modern audiences expect. Director Paige Rattray has attacked the comedy with a showperson’s eye – filling it with flourishes and that extra sprinkle of razzle-dazzle. Yes the whole show is a bit extra, but the audience is left screaming for more.
It’s weird to say but Courtney Act is probably only the third or fourth campest performer on the stage. She’s up against Tracy Mann in the male role of Dr Bradman (played in outrageous drag as a kilt-wearing Scotsman with oversized ginger eyebrows). Then there’s the maid Edith (Megan Wilding), usually played as a mousey, easily frighted thing, but here has been turned into an unusual creature with the ability to throw side-eye like it’s a superpower. Plus, Madame Arcati isn’t just an eccentric, Bohemian spinster, she’s become a modern, overly-eager lycra-clad medium who speaks in deep tones. In this crowd, rather thrillingly Courtney Act’s Elvira almost feels like the most conventional of the bunch!
The show’s anchor is the double act of Matt Day and Bessie Holland as Mr and Mrs Condomine. Day perfectly embodies that dishevelled British charm of the upper classes, and while he serves as the straight man (in many ways) to the play’s more outrageous moments, his timing is impeccable. You almost do feel sorry for the poor sap when he has to deal with not only one demanding wife, but two.
However it is Bessie Holland’s night, as Ruth Condomine she steals the show. Her Ruth is like a bludgeon wrapped in silk, attacking each moment for comedy gold; be it pronouncing cucumber in the manner of Hilaria Baldwin (“Coo-cumber”) or throwing an endless array of camp reactions. Her entrance in Act 2 was a thing of absurd genius. An indomitable presence on the stage, Holland set the bar high for her fellow performers to match, and thankfully they did.
On top of this gymnastic pyramid of comedy performances jumps Courtney Act, like a cheerleader being flung up into the air to balletically stick the landing. As she forewarned us, this is not a standard Courtney Act show; instead she pulls out her impressive comedy chops and proves she has impeccable timing. My fear was that she might get lost among the more seasoned stage actors around her; but no, she delivers the glamour, sex appeal, charm and quips in fine order. Elvira’s puckish nature gleefully causes havoc and Courtney is having a ball doing it. The scene of Elvira being attacked by another, unseen ghost is a terrific blend of physical comedy and stunt work. Courtney Act can act!
The performers are all set up for success thanks to sumptuous stage design by David Fleischer (I was dream shopping the furnishings and artwork), lighting by Damien Copper, and brilliant magic and Illusion work by Adam Mada – the tricks really are wondrous. My only minor quibble about the evening is the length of show, running at two hour and forty minutes, it feels a bit drawn out for a comedy and it would really zing by if a few scenes were trimmed.
When the show was over, the audience spilled out of the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre and looked straight out on the iconic Harbour Bridge, filled with laughter and wine, after an evening of unmissable entertainment. This is the Sydney Theatre Company firing on all cylinders and Blithe Spirit is an all-round crowd-pleaser of a production.
By Chad Armstrong
Blithe Spirit plays at the Drama Theatre in the Sydney Opera House until May 14th 2022