In something of a swan song for Oxford’s A2 Productions, on the 9-12th November, they took to the Keble O’Reilly Theatre for their production of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Cherwell’s previous interview with director Alex Foster and Alfred Dry (Madame Arcati) raised expectations for A2’s creative reimagining of the 1941 play by Noël Coward, and the performances did not disappoint.
In this queer retelling of the original story, Charles Condomine (Michael Freeman) and his wife Ruth Condomine (Siân Lawrence) invite some of their friends and a bizarre spiritual medium called Madame Arcati to their home to conduct a séance. However, in A2’s version, Madame Arcati is a drag queen and when the séance proves effective, it is Charles’ dead first husband Evelyn Condomine (Daniel McNamee) who comes back to haunt the married couple.
The script lends itself well to this queer reframing, and overall the show was a large success. Though the first few minutes were a little rough, with a few lines delivered too early and the Condomine duo almost over-eager to push the conversation along, the actors’ found their footing and the rest of the performance was a delightful, witty, and well-rendered retelling.
Especially notable was Daniel McNamee’s performance as Evelyn, and Alfred Dry, in his Oxford-famous drag persona Miss Take, as Madame Arcati. Embracing the overdone, Dry successfully created the comedic atmosphere so essential to the otherwise awkward séance scenes and improvised gracefully in the face of accidents and errors. Madame Arcati’s hair and makeup were also stunning, artistry which can be credited to Dry / Miss Take as their own makeup artist.
McNamee tastefully played with the feminine tropes designed for the original ‘Elvira’, and used them to explore the queerness of Evelyn without falling into any tired cliches, and the result was something neither derivative nor superficial, which actually added to the humour and intrigue of the production.
As Foster told Cherwell in his interview “what’s quite funny is that making it more pronouncedly queer has meant that the jokes are just dirtier and sexier and funnier,” and while this is very true, it is also true that this humor is just as much a testament to the actors’ as it is to the adaptation of the script. Lawrence plays the outraged wife with apparent ease and Freeman is the perfect foil against which the craziness of the other characters’ shines out while still adeptly representing Charles’ character.
The show’s technical elements were also very successful. The costuming by Mia Beechey reflected the characters well and elevated them to a higher level of believability, creating relatively timeless styles that still suggested the wealth and stature of the Condomines and the eccentricity of Madame Arcati. The set design by Jigyasa Anand and Teagan Riches was also effective, creating different spaces of interaction onstage, although it did seem slightly disjointed, as though none of the set pieces ought to exist in the same living room. Some of them, especially the sofa, did not do the elitist nature of the Condomines justice, while the singularly unstable nature of the table made the séance scenes constantly feel one step away from scenic disaster. However, the space enabled the often-emphatic physical performance of Madame Arcati and the rest, creating a level of dynamism that aided the storytelling.
A2 productions’ performance of Blithe Spirit was everything you could hope from student theatre: invigorating and humorous, but also sharp and poignant at times. It was the perfect form of middle-term escapism and did the original play and its playwright justice, as well as celebrating a new generation of queer culture and creativity.
Image Credit: A2 productions