Blithe Spirit opens – briefly, gloriously – with Celine Dion. Housemaid Edith (Megan Wilding) sits at a piano and lowers her hand to the keys. The dramatic opening notes of It’s All Coming Back to Me Now ring out through the Sydney Opera HouseDrama Theatre.
Then we get our first glimpse of her: Elvira, the dead first wife of uppity novelist Charles Condomine. She’s otherworldly, she’s beautiful, and – as played here by Shane Jenek, better known as drag queen Courtney Act – she’s a vision in pop melodrama.
While a Dion song might seem an odd choice to open Nöel Coward’s 1941 farce, even a very camp production that features two drag performances, the legendary songwriter Jim Steinman said the song was about “dead things coming to life”. That’s what more or less what happens in Blithe Spirit: Charles (Matt Day) throws a dinner party, after which the main form of entertainment is a séance led by local medium Madame Arcati (Brigid Zengeni). But there’s a problem: Elvira’s ghost has shown up and she has no intention of leaving.
Ruth, the new Mrs Condomine (Bessie Holland), can’t see or hear Elvira – but she can see her husband falling all over himself to complain about, flirt with, and even take Elvira to the pictures. More perceptive, witty, and strong-minded than her husband, Holland’s Ruth – a sharp comic delight – attempts to fix the situation and neutralise the ghost.
Director Paige Rattray helms a Sydney Theatre Company production that revels in humour. It isn’t just Elvira who is played in drag: Dr Bradman, the Condomines’ friend, is played by Tracy Mann, with a wonderful ginger beard and brows.
Jenek isn’t the strongest actor – but in his decadently flowing robe, which he uses for dramatic punctuation of nearly every sentence, it almost doesn’t matter. He plays posing melodrama much more fluidly than farce, and his scenes with Day become a rising tide of exaggeration, with plenty of petulant flouncing from both parties. Day, an actor who knows how to balance out a scene partner, does manage to keep it grounded.
But it’s Holland, Wilding and Zengeni who raise the most laughs most consistently, and they do it by melding subtlety with bold comedy. They’re the funniest people on stage – Holland is the star around which this production revolves – and the physical awareness they bring to their roles elevates the stakes of even the least flashy scenes. Charles Condomine might be the catalyst for the play’s plot, but it’s these women who make it sing.
The set, designed by David Fleischer, is an elegant rendition of an upper-class home, packed with overblown markers of performative masculinity. A phallic fountain trickles in the back; a mounted deer head hangs over the bar cabinet; a statue of man’s best friend, a dog sitting alert and upright, keeps steadfast watch next to the fireplace. It’s a home so clearly curated by bourgeois male ego that it’s beyond enjoyable to watch the play’s famously destructive ending tear it all apart.
Clemence Williams sculpts and shapes the laughs with her composition and sound design; her cleverly bright cues descending when necessary into ghoulish notes of displeasure. Damien Cooper’s sumptuous lighting illuminates the smallest of jokes; he doesn’t miss a moment of Edith’s faces, her tiny grimaces providing a running commentary on her employers’ ridiculous behaviour.And the play’s magic and illusions consultant Adam Mada makes the moments of spiritualism sparkle.
At two hours and 40 minutes (including an interval), the production feels a little long, and still seems to be discovering its own pacing: it luxuriates in witty first-act dialogue for so long that more visual moments, like the second act’s cavalcade of attempted exorcisms, feel rushed to save time. The second act is zippier, jettisoning most of the theatrical affectations in the first– but then the playful moments of the first act, like the sudden lip syncs, are much missed. As a result, the play feels disjointed.
But it’s hard to care too much when there are plenty of immediate pleasures. The costumes and the wigs (by Benjamin Moir) are gorgeous and the laughs come easily, often by surprise. Rattray has found all the juice left in an 81-year-old comedy and delights in serving it to us. It’s almost irresistible.