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REVIEW: Threesome impress in Coward's spirited romp
Peninsula Productions have a solid laugh-getter on their hands with this summer's offering, a revival of Noël Coward's very British comedy, Blithe Spirit.
Some reservations aside, this is Peninsula's best and most consistent summer show yet, following on a fine track record that includes Waiting For The Parade (2011), The Mousetrap (2012) and The Game's Afoot (2013).
Under the artistic direction of Wendy Bollard, it's also a demonstration of the level of professionalism, even in a non-professional production, that local community-based theatre can – and does – achieve.
Ben Odberg, Lori Tych and Cherise Clark are delightful as Coward's central romantic triangle, a successful novelist and his two wives, one very much alive, the other deceased, but returned as the "blithe spirit" of the title, thanks to an ill-advised after-dinner seance.
It's a long show, even reduced from Coward's original 1941 script, but the comedic talents of the leads – as well as Andrew Wood and Sheila Reader, equally strong in support – ensure that, for the most part, it doesn't wear out its welcome.
As the novelist, Charles Condomine, Odberg hits all the right notes of initial confusion and anguish – almost Wodehouse-ian in his goggle-eyed reaction as his comfortable, upper-crust train of existence derails, carriage by carriage.
Some fine moments of rapport with both of his leading ladies are also telling – as is the amusing sense, later in the play, that Charles has begun to enjoy contemplating the potential of a most unconventional menage.
Ever-reliable player Tych, as Charles' present wife, Ruth, delivers another splendidly judged performance, resisting shrillness in a nuanced depiction of a demanding woman infuriated by her husband's apparent lunacy (he alone can see and converse with the ghost of his first wife, Elvira) before realizing, a little too late, that she's competing with the shade of her predecessor.
Without eclipsing her co-stars, Clark takes full ownership of the role of the capricious, free-spirited, occasionally petulant Elvira, her characterization pitch-perfect in '30s-'40s tone and manner, and invested with a grand sense of fun, a twinkle in her eye, and good chemistry with Odberg's Charles.
Wood, as Dr. Bradman, draws a sure portrait of an affable, if skeptical friend, while Reader is consistently amusing, and on the mark, as his well-meaning but frequently bewildered wife.
As Madame Arcati, the medium whose intervention in the spirit world precipitates the chaotic sequence of events, Annabel Kershaw provides the called-for eccentricity and extravagance, but falls short of making her endearing. While she dips frequently into a capacious bag of tricks to elicit laughs, it's a performance that leans more toward clownishness than characterization.
Similarly, Stefania Wheelhouse, as Edith, the Condomines' inexperienced new maid, wins a laugh or two with some odd, inconsequential behavior, but never manages to relate it to a credible series of motivations. It's unfortunate that Bollard should have settled on this approach for a key supporting player, as it sets a good show off rather on the wrong foot.
On the plus side of the ledger, an excellent, virtually flawless English country house set – designed by Matt Vondette and built by Richard Stanyer – is so strong that it almost qualifies as a character in its own right, and it has been lovingly decorated by Mahara Sinclaire.
Lighting (Vondette again) and sound effects are well achieved – aside from over-heavy knocking by Arcati's spirit guide – and it's nice to hear Coward's own songs among Samantha Giffin's selection of incidental music. The production's welcome attention to detail can be seen in Rosemary Schuster's properties – including a vintage copy of The Times.
Anais West's costumes strive to flatter the actors; she has included some nice pieces to offset a few aberrations, and has made a stab, at least, at evoking period atmosphere.
The only question is which period?
Granted, there is an inherent problem of deciding in which year to set a play that, while written during the Second World War, makes no reference to it. But a specific determination of the era would have been useful – as it stands, it's hard to judge from scene to scene whether this production is aiming for a pre-war or post-war look.
Blithe Spirit runs until July 26 at White Rock's Coast Capital Playhouse, 1532 Johnston Rd. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for students/seniors (plus service charges), from 604-536-7535 or www.peninsulaproductions.org