Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward, adapted by Sean O'Connor

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Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward, adapted by Sean O’Connor.  Dir: O’Connor.  Perf: Carole Boyd, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Louiza Patikas.  BBC Radio 4, 26 December 2014. 

Available on BBCiPlayer till 25 January 2015.


Not being a regular listener to The Archers, I cannot comment on this production’s basic conceit; that it represents the premiere of an amateur performance directed by Lynda Snell (Carole Boyd) involving other Ambridge residents.


Even if listeners are not au fait with the plot-development surrounding this performance, they can still enjoy this highly entertaining production that proves once more how durable Noël Coward’s classic actually is.  First performed in 1941, it ran for 1997 performances and made a star of Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati.  Audiences of the time enjoyed its subject-matter; at a time when no one knew whether they might live or die in the near future – owing to regular raids by the Germans on London – the subject-matter seemed particularly close to their hearts.  The play has been regularly revived since then, most recently in 2014, when Angela Lansbury returned to the West End for the first time in nearly forty years.  At the time of writing, she is touring North America in the same production.


Listening to Sean O’Connor’s production, I was struck by the sheer brittleness of Coward’s language.  Sometimes it seems almost that Charles Condomine (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and his two wives Elvira (Joanna van Kampen) and Ruth (Louiza Patikas) have an inbuilt need to keep the banter flowing; if they were stop, they might comprehend the emptiness of their lives.  Charles may be “alive” and his two wives “dead” – in the conventional sense – but their existences are much the same.  They inhabit an upper-middle class world defined by gatherings – tea-parties, lunches, balls, and séances – and nothing else.  They have no inner lives to speak of.  Blithe Spirit is undoubtedly very funny, especially when the three protagonists start gossiping about their complicated lives, but there is a sense in which the humour is nothing more than a façade that needs to be sustained at all costs.


After having played Madame Arcati on stage, Rutherford went on to repeat the role in David Lean’s famous 1945 film version with Rex Harrison and Kay Hammond.  Like Edith Evans’s Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, Rutherford became identified with the role of the dotty medium, whose language comprises a fascinating combination of occultist mumbo-jumbo and schoolgirl slang.  Perhaps wisely, Carole Boyd adopted vocal tones strongly reminiscent of Rutherford in O’Connor’s revival; she was particularly good during the sequence where she understood that she had been invited to perform the séance purely for Charles’s research.  In ringing tones she announced that she was leaving the house forthwith; one could imagine her storming out of the room in her long, flowing gown fluttering behind her.


In the film version, David Lean shows how the two wives wreak revenge on Charles by having his car crash, so that the three of them are all dead.  By contrast O’Connor’s revival ended with Charles leaving the house, while telling Elvira and Ruth in no uncertain terms that they had no real power over him anymore.  This ending seemed rather misogynist in the sense that it showed Charles emerging “victorious,” even though he himself had been responsible for summoning his wives back from the dead in the first place.  In Rhind-Tutt’s performance, he came across as a bit of a duffer, with his faux-upper class vowels and generally stiff, unemotional method of delivery.  If this is what he was like while being married, it was hardly surprising that his wives were dissatisfied with him.  Such a personality did not deserve to live, while his wives had to exist “on the other side,” so to speak.


Yet this represents only a minor objection in a revival that zipped along at a cracking pace.  The actors obviously derived a great deal of enjoyment from their roles, and this was communicated to the listeners.  I hope that Radio 4 manages to repeat the drama very soon, either on their own station or on Radio 4 Extra.