Blithe Spirit - directed by Jo Fosker
This is Noel Cowards probably best known and loved play, with wonderful characters such as the eccentric medium Madam Arcati, and the ethereal Elvira.
When this play was first staged an unkind critic wrote "There are two things in this play that should be cut, the second act and the maids throat" fortunately this didn't apply to this production.
Front of House
A very warm welcome awaited us from the FOH staff and seats were reserved as requested.
The programme in its bright blue outer cover contained the cast list together with photographs and thumbnail sketch of the cast and lists of the Production Team plus a list of past production from 1959 to the present.
A Chairman's Welcome and Director's Note were both included by Jo Fosker who explained that she also had, at short notice, to take on the role of Edith.
Phoenix has the benefit of acting on a very wide stage, the set consisting of a three-sided box set with large patterned grey wallpaper walls. On the back wall upstage right were French windows, on the side wall a door was positioned door leading to the hall way and on upstage left side wall another door leading to the other parts of the house.
The back wall was long, and it could have been of advantage to have built an alcove with bookshelves to break it up and make it more interesting to the audience.
This production was very well lit with no shadows on the walls from the actors. However, there was an absence of practical lights on the set and as the play relies heavily on the lights being switched on an off it is important that they are there to be able to do so.
The sťance scene was, for me too brightly lit, the actors should just be seen from the moon light coming in from the French Window and the glow from the fire.
The ghostly goings on at the end of the play and the effect of the lights being turned on and off was really lost due to the lack of practical lights on the set.
The production was introduced with the sound of 40s dance music which set us in the right mood for the play.
I loved the slightly scratched recording of "Always" hearing the starting groves grind then the music was a joy to listen to.
Properties and Furniture
The furniture looked right for the period in which the play is set, however, I did feel the table that was used for the sťance was a little on the small side and was dominated by the actors, it is a very important feature of the sťance.
The Gramophone did seem to cause Charles a problem when trying to keep the lid open to put the record on the turntable.
Very much of the period all the lady's costumes were delightful, Elvira's flowing dress and Ruth's ghostly costume were just right.
As far as the two men's Dress Suits go it would have been of advantage for Charles to have worn a cummerbund as the front of his shirt had pulled up and looked a little unsightly and Dr Bradman's dress jacket didn't look quite right either.
Charles Condomine---Kenton Church
Kenton looked the part very much, a mammoth part for any actor, Charles a writer and a bit of a lad with the ladies in his younger days, trying to juggle the spirit of his dead wife with his current live one.
After a slow start in the opening scene with Ruth Kenton he got into the required pace and gave us a self-assured performance of a man torn between his love for Ruth and the mischievous Elvira.
There was a directorial problem with Kenton's stage positioning when talking across stage, this also applied to other actors, in that he stood side on to the audience rather than three quarters on, this meant the audience couldn't see any facial expression and the voice projection was reduced.
Ruth Condomine---Becky Smart
Second wife of Charles requires the actress playing this roll switching from the loving wife to accepting that she comes second to Elvira in Charles' pecking order.
Becky achieved this but like Kenton it was a rather slow start at her first entrance but soon the pace picked up.
Ruth needed to have a clipped accent, and Becky achieved this.
Doctor Bradman---Syd Smith
Looking and sounding the local General Practitioner Syd very much created a very likeable character, cynically regarding Madam Arcati's ability as a medium, but never the less accepting and enjoying the evening.
Bradman's slower diction was just right for the thoughtful doctor.
Mrs Bradman---Angela Gee
I have often considered the part of Mrs Bradman to be subservient to the rest of the characters in the play, but not so with Angela playing it. What a wonderful performance she gave, with the least dialogue of any, Angela created the biggest impact, with her strong dominating voice and personality. This was a Master Class in proving that an actor does not need the lead part to influence the production.
Madame Arcati---Helen Langley
This is a gem of a part for any actor and Helen took full advantage of playing the eccentric medium, she not only looked just right, but either she or the director had created some wonderful mannerisms and sideway looks culminating in her dunking her cucumber sandwich in her cup of tea.
Helen changed Madam Arcati from a gentle and a genial person to being quite sharp when doubted as to her ability as a medium.
Her scene with Elvira proving that she really did exist was a comical gem.
Very much the flowing spirit, dressed in flowing grey dress Katherine glided around the stage taking full advantage of the very large acting area that she had at her disposal.
At times she did speak rather too rapidly and when moving upstage her voice tended to be lost.
I was concerned that whilst Katherines hair remained it natural colour or wasn't greyed enough, to match the costume, and therefore didn't look in character.
From the programme notes I understand that Jo took over the roll of Edith at short notice, not an easy thing to do and I must say she made a very good job of it. The role of Edith only really comes into its own in the last scene, but is present in most of the others but rather than playing it as a young girl Jo created a more mature version of the character and it worked well.
By acting in the play its not possible to see the "whole picture" of the production, even when you are not on stage you are waiting to go on and therefore miss little things that can improve a production.
More could have been put into the final scene of the two ghosts causing mayhem in the room, only the lights going up and down, and there weren't any practical lights to assist in the illusion. The gramophone did speed up and slow down.
There could have been paintings coming off the walls, the French window curtains being pulled down and the fire creating a lot of smoke. Also, the possible use of follow spots flowing around the room, vases falling from the mantlepiece, etc.
Blithe Sprite is a long play and needs to have a good pace, in the main this was obtained, but the start was a little slow and in the last scene some of the words were lost which also slowed the pace down.
I have already mentioned Elvira's hair and the same comments applied to Ruth there are I believe ways of colouring hair that will wash out or even wearing a grey wig would solve the problem.
I noted in the programme that the hall had to be cleared by 10.00pm as the play didn't finish until 10.15 this was a bit tricky.
This first night's audience were not as large as one would like but I know they enjoyed the production.
Congratulations to Jo and her cast & crew for staging this production."
Michael Poole-North Essex Theatre Guild