Blithe Spirit

Written by Noël Coward

Thurs 24th - Sat 26th November & Tues 29th November - Saturday 3rd December 2005

Directed by Damon Wakelin

A boisterously, joyously theatrical classic from the pen of a quintessentially English wit. A séance, held by eccentric clairvoyant Madame Arcati, leads to the most unusual and unlikely ménage a trois in the history of the stage.

"Anything might happen when I am in a trance."Madame Arcati

AuthorNoël Coward

Sir Noël Pierce Coward (1899 - 1973)

Noël Coward was not only a prolific playwright but a poet, composer, director, actor and singer too. Well-known for his wit and flamboyance, his work and style continue to influence popular culture.

Born in Teddington, Coward attended a dance academy as a child, making his professional stage debut at the age of eleven. As a teenager he was introduced into the high society in which most of his plays would be set. Coward achieved enduring success as a playwright, publishing more than 50 plays from his teens onwards. He composed hundreds of songs, in addition to well over a dozen musical theatre works, poetry, several volumes of short stories, a novel (Pomp and Circumstance) and a three-volume autobiography. Coward's stage and film acting and directing career spanned six decades, during which he starred in many of his own works.

At the outbreak of World War II, Coward volunteered for war work. He worked with the Secret Service, seeking to use his influence to persuade the American public and government to help Britain. Coward won an Academy Honorary Award in 1943 for his naval film drama, 'In Which We Serve', and was knighted in 1969. In the 1950s he achieved fresh success as a cabaret performer, performing his own songs and the former Albery Theatre was renamed the Noël Coward Theatre in his honour in 2006.

PlayBlithe Spirit

'Blithe Spirit' was written in 1941 and despite poor reviews by the critics, proved a hit with the public during the dark days of war. It set a new long-run record for non-musical British plays of 1,997 performances for its West End run, which started that year. It also did well on Broadway, running for 657 performances. Coward adapted the play for film in 1945, starring Rex Harrison and Margaret Rutherford, and he directed a musical adaptation, 'High Spirits' on Broadway in 1964. The play was also adapted for television in the 1950s and 1960s and for radio.

'Blithe Spirit' takes its title from Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "To a Skylark" ("Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!, Bird thou never wert"). The story concerns socialite and novelist Charles Condomine, who invites the eccentric medium and clairvoyant, Madame Arcati to his house to conduct a séance, hoping to gather material for his next book. The scheme backfires when he is haunted by the ghost of his annoying and temperamental first wife, Elvira, following the séance. Elvira makes continual attempts to disrupt Charles' marriage to his second wife, Ruth, who cannot see or hear the ghost and much of the humour is derived from Charles' and Ruth's attempts to send Elvira back where she came from.

The Bench Production

Blithe Spirit poster image

This play was staged at Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977.


Edith, a maidEmma Skinner
Ruth CondomineVicky Hayter
Charles CondomineMark Wakeman
Dr BradmanJaspar Utley
Mrs BradmanSharman Callam
Madame ArcatiSue Dawes
Elvira CondomineGemma Harrison


Director Damon Wakelin
Producers Lorraine Galliers
Liam Penny
Stage Manager John Wilcox
Assistant Stage Managers Sophia Palombo
Steph Chaplen
Chris Stoneham
Lighting Design Damon Wakelin
Lighting Operation Gemma Moore
Sound Effects Darryl Wakelin
Sound Operation Gemma Moore
Costumes Susan Walton
Simon Walton
Set Design Damon Wakelin
Set Construction Nathan Chapman
Programme Derek Callam
Front of House Zoë Chapman

Director's Notes

It could be argued that this is a play crying out for re-interpretation. Gothic horror maybe? Post-modern irony? Feminist? What would Sarah Kane, enfant terrible of the 'In Yer Face' school of theatre, have made of such a play? This was never the intention with this production. I have never directed a period comedy before and that was what I wanted to do. Nothing fancy, nothing 'clever'.

The Importance of Being Earnest was lucky; it only had Edith Evans' immortal uttering of "A handbag?" to haunt it. Blithe Spirit has two ghosts dogging its steps.

The first is Margaret Rutherford, gamely enlivening an otherwise dreadful film of the play, but nonetheless indelibly stamping her mark on the role for generations to come. The second is Noel Coward himself, or at least the popular image of Noel Coward. (Not helped by the fact that Charles is described as wearing a silk dressing gown in one scene of the play.)

So, as a Director, how does one exorcise this brace of theatrical spectres? By starting afresh. With notable exceptions, I find Coward to be a bit like Wilde; almost-characters acting as a conduit for the author to be witty and clever and urbane. So we start with two dimensions and seek out ways to give each character a third dimension, to flesh them out and begin to make them real.

In this, no Director should ever underestimate the contribution made by the actors, and I have been beautifully served by a cast that have been willing to be silly - I can't remember a rehearsal room being so full of positive, constructive and genuine laughter - and at the same time able to apply serious analysis and skill to developing character and atmosphere.

The result is that we have leapt beyond the surface of show pony (Madame Arcati), bad guy (Charles), straight man (Ruth), and even comedy servant-come-plot device (Edith). We have created what I believe to be a collection of satisfyingly recognisable characters in satisfyingly bizarre circumstances.

We hope you enjoy the show. Caviar anyone?

Damon Wakelin


The NewsJames George

Energy and enthusiasm, but lacking a subtle touch

Bench Theatre's version of the Noël Coward classic clearly entertained its first-night audience but sadly, falls short of their normally very high performance standards on several fronts. Mark Wakeman was the only member of the cast to get a real handle on Coward's dialogue and here, at least, we were treated to light and shade, tone and texture. Wakeman's insight into some of the phrasing was witty and his performance inventive whereas - sad to say - the rest of the cast seemed too heavy-handed with Coward's gentle-touch words and humour. The mostly young principal cast seems hindered by a lack of performance experience. Perhaps stronger direction is needed here to bring the polish the production lacks.

Gemma Harrison is certainly beautiful enough for the ghostly Elvira, but she simply lacks subtlety. This is also the missing ingredient from Vicky Hayter's Ruth. Sue Dawes gets the laughs as wayward mystic Madame Arcati but she, Harrison and Hayter must be wary of replacing characterisation with volume. To much of the piece was played at the upper end of the decibel level.

That said, the energy and enthusiasm of the cast was evident, and there were nice cameos from Emma Skinner as the maid, Edith, and Jaspar Utley and Sharman Callam. Tonight and Tuesday, November 29 to Saturday December 3.

The News, 25th November 2005

Production Photographs