"You ask my advice about acting? Speak clearly, don't bump into the furniture and if you must have motivation, think of your pay packet on Friday." (Noel Coward!)
Clearly the Parish Players actors and associated crew have no such fiscal motivation and instead what shone through the whole evening was the dedication and enthusiasm to stage plays for the sake of theatre and audience enjoyment rather than perhaps more cynical commercial reasons. Nor did they bump into the furniture, the furniture was allowed to bump of its own accord! From the welcome by the young ushers at the start to the magnificently detailed set and costumes, from the eager lighting team to the efficient and well rehearsed stage crew it was evident that this production was tightly and cohesively put together.
Stages in church hall have to be some of the most awkward and inflexible playing spaces ever yet the design of this set and its execution was most effective in creating the illusion of the Condomine’s drawing room. Particularly thoughtful details such as the choice of “period” wall paper and colour palette that tied in with the upholstery really helped to convince one that this was indeed somebody’s home rather than a hotchpotch of borrowed pieces of furniture…which it inevitably was. The selection of period props and set dressing was again detailed and correct for the period, and giving the overall look of the stage a far more sumptuous feel than probably it actually cost! The designer had been careful to marry all the elements together with some subtlety. Lighting throughout was also well thought through in terms of the moods required especially for the séance scenes where the practical table lights and flaming fire really lent atmosphere and mood to the moment. I found the lighting state changes for Elvira’s entrances however to be a little too sudden for my taste and rather less well blended.
The costumes were absolutely spot on and clearly not only carefully chosen or made but also researched and then created to reflect characters personalities as well as social status and occasion. Madam Arcarti’s evening wear was wonderfully evocative of the “Bloomsbury” set to which she might have belonged in her youth whilst the Condomines and Bradmans remained sartorially stoutly faithful to social expectations. Elvira’s dress was very finely judged in terms of colour and its sexual appeal adding significantly to the evident attraction her husband still felt for her.
Anne Carroll’s performance as Madam Arcarti was excellent, she maintained the battiness and breathless enthusiasm of the woman without taking the character into the realms of an over hammy pantomime dame. I particularly loved hearing touches of Anne’s natural accent add depth and richness to the received pronunciation that is the more obvious choice for Coward’s characters, it brought a naturalness and warmth to the lines that worked really well. The struggle with such tightly written and precise dialogue is to try and keep it sounding real which Anne certainly did. I really appreciated her total commitment to the role with her instinctive physicality for Madam Arcarti, the fluttering hands and “studies” (looking as if directly referenced from 1930’s Art Nouveau poses) to the comical awkwardness and greed when not performing her trances. Peter Smith and Margaret Chick were the perfect conventional couple, resigned to a life of domestic predictability after their previous marriages. Their execution of the lines was handled well and with some style although on the first night nerves may have affected a few of the lines with some prompts needed. I felt very much they had captured the self centred smugness of the well off which was satisfyingly shattered by Elvira’s reappearance in the land of the living. Peter provided an alternately hectoring and whining character while Margaret was pleasingly cynical and direct in her interpretation. The first scene with its necessary ping pong witticisms regarding the nature of Elvira, and Charles’s discomfiture at trying not to upset Ruth worked well. At times in later scenes the pace dropped at times losing a little of the “throwaway” wit that Coward does so well.
Claire Hoult was very well cast as Elvira, a commanding and at the same time infuriatingly childish beauty, quite believable in her ability to capture any man’s heart and drive him to utter distraction. I felt it was a bold directorial choice to use grey/ blue make up to enhance the ghostliness of her and one which very much helped to distance her from the living. I would however have toned down her lipstick, it luminesced at times under the blue lighting states and took away some of the ethereal quality of her. Claire had a very interesting technique in delivering many of her characters lines out front, which at times broke through the fourth wall convention and appeared to invite the audience in sharing her state of otherworldliness to mock the other characters on stage.
Justin Webster created a believably unassertive Dr Bradman with great focus and utilised underplayed reactions on stage, which is an absolutely key technique when acting in Coward’s plays. He was a very funny and sympathetic character. Lindsey Litster’s portrayal of his wife was a wonderful counterpoint to her rather fey husband and the stubborn certainty of the Condomine’s. She played Mrs Bradman as a somewhat empty headed, easily impressed woman keen to be in on the fascination of the Condomine’s experiment. Caroline Chick was wonderful as the cameo Edith, giving full rein to the capacity of Coward’s characters to be broadly comedic when inventive actors/ directors find the physical rhythm of those characters.
I felt the play was directed by Caryl Court and Toni Conyers with a real appreciation of the style and wit of the piece with excellent blocking throughout and good use of the whole set. The moments of suspense, comic relief and the final dénouement of the ghosts’ disappearance with the room being invisibly wrecked were handled with assurance and clear understanding of how to use the space creatively. The choice of music in between scenes was excellent and really helped to create the passage of time and mood of each subsequent scene. Scene changes were in the main slick and efficient, I was amazed to count what I thought were six stagehands for one scene change. A real testament to the dedication of the company to make the play a success. The only minor criticism I had was the quality of sound for some of the sound effects. The door bell and the cuckoo particularly were affected by an odd background rumble. I suspect this is an equipment issue, but the devil is in the detail and with such a well put together show it is a shame to have one small element out of place.
Well done everyone and I’ll leave the last words to himself!
"Work hard, do the best you can, don't ever lose faith in yourself and take no notice of what other people say about you.” (Noel Coward)