Blithe Spirit (Black Swan State Theatre Company, Heath Ledger Theatre, 2015)

The party prepare for the seance. Image: Gary Marsh

The party prepare for the seance. Image: Gary Marsh

In Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, Ruth and Charles Condomine invite their friends, along with local kook Madame Arcati to an all-in-good-fun seance. But the fun soon fades for the couple when the seance leads to the mistaken calling-forth of the spirit of Charles’ dead first wife, Elvira, much to his and Ruth’s horror.

I have loved this supremely funny farce since first performing monologues from it as a teenager doing Trinity College Speech exams.

Later I saw it in the fabulous movie version starring the indomitable Margaret Rutherford as scatty but enthusiastic medium Madame Arcati, and loved that too, so much so that I made the Ministry watch it a few years ago.

Most recently I saw a stage version Roleystone community theatre performed perhaps just two years ago, to which I dragged the Ministry in an effort to show him both why I like community theatre (not just for the free cream sherry starters) and enjoyed myself immensely.

While I have liked previous contemporary works by Black Swan – last year’s Gasp! for example – I do think the company shines brightest when it goes traditional. So when I heard it was doing my old favourite I knew that, given my recent viewing history of the play it was complete overkill to attend, but nevertheless absolutely necessary.

I got the news on the day of the preview that the actress playing Madame Arcati – not the biggest role of the play but arguably the show-stealer – Roz Hammond, had fallen ill and had had to withdraw from the season, I greeted the news with mingled worry that my guest, The Tutor, who I had been sure would share my enthusiasm for this play, might not see it at its best.

Director Jeffrey Jay Fowler appeared before curtain-up to tell her replacement Alison van Reeken, who had played to acclaim in the recent season of Dinner, had been called upon just that day to play the role and would do so bravely, script in hand, on the strength of a single run-through that morning.

Despite my trepidation I was very much inclined, as I’m sure the rest of the audience was, to show goodwill to anyone with the balls to get up and star in a production at the drop of a hat and joined in the warm applause at her appearance.

Well, by golly. As I told the Ministry that night when I appeared at home deliriously sleepy after staying up two hours past my regular bedtime (I know, it’s pathetic) anyone who thinks acting is a bit of a Mickey Mouse profession should have seen what van Reeken stumped up.

She used the script as she had to, but she did so fluidly and with amazingly little reliance on it. She made it part of her movement (and Madame Arcati is a very physical role, so this was no small achievement.) She used the stage space without a single stumble that I could see, and of course we were all looking for one.

Physically she was about as far as you could get from the Madame Arcati of my imagination, who behaves firmly like a stout middle-aged crazy auntie (we’ve all got one) so it was a shock to the system to see her played by a slender young blonde. But this fine-boned woman had a big stage presence and my suspicions faded quickly.

I was honestly so impressed by van Reeken’s self-possession, professionalism and general aplomb that it was an inspiration to see her in action.

Her performance was all the more impressive in such a dialogue-heavy play. This play has a relatively basic set and as Coward fans will understand, the rapid-fire comedic dialogue is everything. If that fails you got Buckley’s. And it didn’t fail.

With this in mind, credit must also go to the other actors who supported van Reeken so strongly in her every scene, particularly the roguish Charles (Adam Booth) who loves both his wives (but perhaps not quite as devotedly as all that, as he himself confesses) and snappish but pitiable Ruth (Adriane Daff) as well as peevish and excitable Elvira (Jo Morris), who wreaks such merry havoc upon their once-contented marriage.

Charles and Ruth. Image: Gary Marsh

Charles and Ruth. Image: Gary Marsh

Charles and Ruth, onstage for virtually the entire 2.5-hour play, never miss a beat despite the phenomenal amount of dialogue they have. The speed and skill and timing of their repartee is flawless. Despite the entire cast looking rather younger than I would generally expect (it is traditionally a middle-aged sort of crowd whereas none of these characters, apart from one, looked much over thirty) they were all so on-beat that I eventually forgot the characters I imagined and started appreciating the ones in front of me.

Ruth tries to keep it together. Image: Gary Marsh

Ruth tries to keep it together. Image: Gary Marsh

My favourite was probably Ruth, whose keyed-up speeches (screeches?) made me laugh, but simultaneously grimace in solidarity with her. The Tutor loved Charles and a special nod must go the maid Edith (Ella Hetherington), whose exaggerated mincing about the stage had perfect comic timing.

I made particular note of the beautiful use of lighting, which managed to produce the effects of all times of night and day with uncanny authenticity. At one stage I could have sworn I was myself sitting at a sunlit breakfast table on a crisp English morning.

Don’t let the change of cast put you off. If you love a good English comedy of manners then it would be a sin not to take yourself off to this one. Alison van Reeken will probably have learned her lines and written a novel and baked a cake by the time you’ve booked your ticket if what she managed in one day is anything to go by.

But do watch Margaret Rutherford in the movie as well – afterwards, of course.

I got review tickets for this, I should mention, but my appreciation is genuine.

Blithe Spirit runs until August 9.

 

Gasp! (Black Swan State Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre Company, Heath Ledger Theatre)

Everyone owns the air, don’t they? We don’t have the right to sell it…?

Phillip (Damon Lockwood), Lockheart (Greg McNeill) and Sandy (Steven Rooke) in Gasp! Image by Gary Marsh Photography.

Phillip (Damon Lockwood), Lockheart (Greg McNeill) and Sandy (Steven Rooke) in Gasp! Image by Gary Marsh Photography.

Gasp! is written by Ben Elton, stand-up comic, writer of such awesome books as High Society (read it) sitcoms including Blackadder and The Young Ones.

When big mining starts to run out of stuff to dig up, young executive Phillip (Damon Lockwood) is under pressure to perform. He comes up with the bright idea of marketing designer air, free from the unpleasant odours that of everyday life. Of course, it all goes dreadfully wrong and children in Africa begin to suffocate while the rich drink in designer air sucked in from exotic locations.

Gasp! is an update of Elton’s earlier hit Gasping. When I say updated, I mean no-kidding updated, leaving nowhere for contemporary Australia to hide from this – most unforgiving – portrayal of itself.

Apple, Palmer, Packer, Rineheart, Murdoch, PR, Labor, Liberal and the press, from The Australian to the ABC – none are safe from the glare of this most egalitarian mockery.

If you’re too busy to delegate yourself, for God’s sake get someone to do it for you.

In a fabulous scene, Phillip tries to have a serious conversation with new girlfriend Peggy (Lucy Goleby) as the audience giggles madly, watching him take girlish sips from a bucket-sized Starbonks cup. Yes, Starbonks.

Phillip, Lockheart and Sandy get down to business in the sauna. Image: Gary Marsh Photography

Phillip, Lockheart and Sandy get down to business in the sauna. Image: Gary Marsh Photography

I was eagerly awaiting the sets, which did not disappoint. Spare, simple and formed by key pieces of furniture and a screen backdrop, they roll on and off sideways, suggesting by turns an executive office, hospital room, PR-shark office-slash-playroom, cute living room – complete with that most iconic of Australian suburban symbols, the flying ducks – sauna, press briefing room and, cleverest of all, airport travelator.

Changes are rapid and made exciting with effective use of music and the actors’ silhouetted figures.

Lockwood, a hapless hero with a definite air of J. Pierrepont Finch – the whole show is very How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying – is an excellent lead, sharp and funny, with an elastic face and seemingly endless capacity to ad-lib over the odd technical difficulty, effortlessly charming the audience.

All the casting, in fact, was spot-on, with each actor fitting their role beautifully.

The Matriarch, my guest for the evening, thought the relationship between Phillip and Peggy a touch stilted, and I had to agree – there lacked a bit of the warmth their innocent courtship could have had, an opportunity to humanise the play a bit more. But this is a minor criticism of a play that proves an incisive critique of Australia’s resources-reliant economy and big businesses, albeit one that never lags or gets preachy.

It’s laugh-out-loud funny throughout, acidic satire tempered with lashings of toilet humour and a smidge of nudity, topped off by a hilariously dotty closing scene.

A great night out and a reminder of how satisfying and energetic contemporary theatre can be.

The production is on at Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA until Sunday 9 November, and then travels to Queensland.

Bookings: ticketek.com.au, 1300 795 012 or in person at venue box office.

Death of a Salesman (Black Swan State Theatre Company, State Theatre Centre, May 4, 2013)

(Bernard) Sometimes a man has to walk away.

(Willy) What if he can’t walk away?

(Bernard) I guess then it’s tough.

Josh McConville, John Stanton. Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh

Biff (Josh McConville) and Willy (John Stanton) in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh

On Saturday night, May 4, director Adam Mitchell emerged rather apologetically to warn the preview show was “part of our rehearsal process” … but after feedback, would hopefully “really sing”.

Sing it does already.

John Stanton is utterly convincing as Willy Loman, the debt-laden salesman who never made his fortune; whose two sons are not following in his footsteps, or anyone’s; and whose mind is retreating, rather than face such truths.

His wife Linda (Caroline McKenzie) is ageing disgracefully and barely allowed to finish a sentence by the menfolk. Her hair greys, her stockings ladder, are mended and then ladder again. Her bathrobe is perpetual.

Anyone who has ever confronted their parents’ increasing fragility and confusion will see uncomfortable truths in the portrayal of this couple, aware of their children’s faults, but wilfully blind to their limitations.

Biff (Josh McConville) and Happy (Ben O’Toole) show their desperate frustration with their parents, but are themselves infuriating. It is hard to feel for them, and they show similar confusion about themselves.

(Happy) You’re a poet, you’re an idealist.

(Biff) No – I’m mixed up.

It is hard to lay the blame for the events that follow at the feet of any one. All seem at times to teeter on the brink of salvation, but all betray themselves – the boys by apathy, and Willy by pride.

(Linda) You have enough to be happy, right here, right now. Why must everybody conquer the world?

Linda finally learns to stand up for herself as well as for Willy, but wins no reward.

I overheard some muttering in the interval about accents. I am no authority on the subject and found them all adequate, but will say it seemed to me that Stanton’s was the only one that to me rang authoritatively enough to conjure a real sense of place and time. Moreover, throughout I had some trouble picking up every bit of the dialogue, which in some bits seemed a touch indistinct.

I confess to wondering, pre-interval, why anyone puts themselves through something so undeniably miserable as this story, knowing  how it ends.

I concluded in the second half that this is precisely the difference between a sob story and art. You can’t tear yourself away from truly great writing.

For that matter, great writing can only “sing” if it is as skilfully performed and compellingly staged as this is, with its flashbacks so enmeshed with the “present” that the whole mess represents Willy’s mind, trapped by its long-held beliefs and desires.

(Willy)  Never leave a job til it’s finished, remember that.

(Willy) A man can’t go out the way he came in. A man’s got to add up to something.

The story enthrals as its awful implications reveal themselves, and even the shadow cast by an industrial fan on to the stage seems menacing.

The sets of The White Divers of Broome with its eerie lighting and The Importance of being Earnest with its the extravagant flower-wall (the last two Black Swan shows I saw) impressed me with their simplicity and beauty, and the staging of this show is no different.

Caroline McKenzie as Linda and John Stanton as Willy in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh.

Linda (Caroline McKenzie) and Willy in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh.

You aren’t shown a view from Willy and Linda’s window, but you watch them look outside and clearly see what they do – an urban jungle, slowly encroaching on their American dream.

I’ve got to get some seeds. I’ve got to get some seeds, right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.

A lonely fridge sits reproachfully in a corner, a reminder that it has broken before it has been paid off. Like the fridge, Willy and Linda are so close to paying off the mortgage and owning their home, but see their lives broken anyway as Willy’s tortured mind gets the better of him.

0235 Caroline McKenzie, Igor Sas, Josh McConville, Ben O'Toole, Eden Falk. Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh

Linda, Charley (Igor Sas), Biff, Happy (Ben O’Toole) and Bernard (Eden Falk) in Death of a Salesman. Photo by Gary Marsh

Needless to say, my face was all crumpled and salty by the time the play reached its harrowing end.

I saw many a similar countenance on the way to the Ladies’, where we all gave each other smiles that at once acknowledged how silly we were, but also how right we were to be hurt.

(Linda) I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person.

Black Swan, we’re paying attention. As my mate Sturdy put it: “I can’t believe how marvelously depressing that was.”

Death of a Salesman runs until May 19.