Playwright, composer and actor Noel Coward aspired to the life of British high society – even though he wasn’t born to it.
It’s a mark of his humble beginnings in the London suburb of Teddington that, while stylizing the laconic, clipped conversation affected by the upper crust – and, in the process, making it his trademark – he couldn’t resist poking fun at the manners and mores of his “betters.”
In comedies like Private Lives, Hay Fever, Present Laughter and his 1940s hit Blithe Spirit – upcoming summer presentation of Peninsula Productions – Coward excelled at creating class-conscious socialites who were sleek, attractive and beautifully dressed, but more or less fatheads.
“When you hear Ruth and Charles Condomine twittering on about their former maid, you realize that they may be among the beautiful people, but they’re actually jerks,” observed Peninsula Productions artistic director Wendy Bollard.
The shallow, judgmental, sometimes misogynistic views the Condomines express in Blithe Spirit were genuine attitudes of the times, Bollard pointed out, and Coward was writing in 1940, when the grim realities of the Second World War had not fully overtaken pre-war mindsets.
But part of the pleasure of Coward’s fantastical farce for audiences then – and today – is the certainty that there will be a comeuppance for the Condomines.
“We get to see their world unravel,” Bollard said.
When egotistical novelist Charles invites a medium, Madame Arcati, to conduct a séance in the couple’s English country house, he doesn’t feel it’s necessary to mention his tampering with the spirit world is simply a scheme to gather material for a new book.
Retribution for his arrogance arrives swiftly and ectoplasmically – in the ghostly form of Charles’ temperamental first wife, Elvira, liberated by Arcati’s efforts to prowl the Condomine residence at will.
As the only one who can see or hear Elvira, an increasingly desperate Charles must find a way to pacify this particular ‘blithe spirit’ – who is clearly intent on causing havoc in his current marriage.
For Charles and Ruth, Bollard is taking no chances, bringing back two of Peninsula Productions’ most popular and reliable players, Ben Odberg and Lori Tych (The Game’s Afoot, Death and the Maiden).
They’re both actors who understand that nuanced playing is key to Coward’s brittle dialogue, Bollard said.
“Comedy is all about subtext – it’s all about what the person is thinking, not about what they’re saying,” Bollard said. “This wouldn’t work at all without the right Charles. It wouldn’t be funny at all.”
Ruth, while obviously disturbed by the intrusion of Elvira, can’t be played on a single note of anger, Bollard adds – that would also trample the comedy flat,
“Lori’s doing a great job of it – not falling into the trap of playing Ruth as simply bitchy.”
The stellar quality of the current production receives an additional boost from the presence of two well-known Vancouver actresses: Annabel Kershaw, as the eccentric Madame Arcati, and Cherise Clarke, as sensuous spirit Elvira.
Kershaw, frequently featured in Arts Club, Vancouver Playhouse and Gateway Theatre productions, has received two Jessie awards as best actor.
“Annabel is just a delight,” said Bollard. “She’s always got great ideas for the character – lots of great stuff in her bag of tricks for us to unpack and play with.”
Clarke, also known from Arts Club shows, has worked for Blackbird Theatre, Neworld Theatre and had a notable earlier encounter with Coward’s world in Hay Fever under the direction of Nicola Cavendish.
“Casting is so much about chemistry,” Bollard said. “In this show we have great chemistry between Charles and Elvira – the moment Cherise walked into the room and started reading with Ben, you could feel the energy crackling between them.”
Bollard said strong support is being provided by Sheila Reader-Romo and Andrew Wood as the Condomines’ friends the Bradmans and newcomer Stefania Wheelhouse as Edith, the hapless, wide-eyed new maid.
All in all, Blithe Spirit has all the ingredients of a crowd-pleaser, Bollard said – although she’s learned not everyone likes the idea of seances, even in such a farcical context.
A similar scene resulted in a walkout by a small group of offended theatre-goers during last summer’s run of The Game’s Afoot, she noted.
“I’m really hoping those people, if they’re upset by seances, will stay away from this one!” she said.
Blithe Spirit runs July 9-26, 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