>blithe spirit by w!ld rice

>reviewed by james koh

>date: 17 oct 01
>time: 8pm
>venue: the jubilee hall, raffles hotel
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Remember a time when the word "gay" did not carry any homosexual baggage? A time when you could describe a play as "gay", and would not expect the audience to be made up mainly of men? Well for want of a better word, BLITHE SPIRIT is indeed a gay play - exuberantly light, deliciously frothy and wittily entertaining. After all, this was written to cheer the British up when German bombs were raining down on London in WWII.

Written by Noel Coward, whose literary ancestors include Gilbert & Sullivan and Oscar Wilde, BLITHE SPIRIT tells the story of writer Charles Koh, who decides to invite a local medium to conduct a séance at his home, all in the name of research for his new book. Together with his second wife, Ruth, and a couple of friends, they manage to conjure up the spirit of his first wife, Elvira - who in the course of the play wreaks havoc with Charles' life.

Obviously the problem of staging this seemingly dated British comedy is the difficulty in situating this play in a Singaporean context. I can hear you groan already - do we really need bad British accents and clumsy attempts to localise the various British cultural references in the play?

The amazing thing about this production of BLITHE SPIRIT is that it works.

>>'A panadol for people tired of the recent spate of arty plays that did not believe that one of the rules of theatre is to entertain.'

The first main problem of language was not solved by having actors going for a crash course in "British Accents for Idiots". Instead, Coward's witty wordiness and tongue-twisting poetry were spoken with the natural cadences of a Singapore accent. Lines like "That remark came perilously close to impertinence" did not come across as alien or alienating from an apparently well-to-do Singaporean, but were marvellously natural in the hands of a seasoned cast, a cast which one would imagine, had perfected the lines through numerous rehearsals.

The other problem - the cultural specificity of the play - was not even a problem to begin with, with the rather seamless transposition of 1940s London to present-day Singapore. References to Holland Village, a honeymoon in Penang and the Straits Times were not only handled with ease by the actors, but also highlighted the effortlessness with which the plot was able to accommodate these initially insignificant, but cumulatively important details.

In fact, there were many knowing winks to the fact that Margaret Chan took the role of the local medium, Madam Arcati - what with the references to cockroaches and 'Masters of the Sea', the series so bad that it has gone down in TV history.

My only hesitation at the extent the production went to to in contextualise these cultural references was the seeming attempt to hint at the darker undercurrents between Singapore employers and their foreign maids, as portrayed by the relationship between the Kohs and their Filipino maid, Edith. This did not sit comfortably with the playfulness of the script and not only came across as being heavy handed, but a little bit self-defeating for a play that Coward himself called "superficial".

The cast was made up of top-notch local talents, including Lim Kay Siu in the role of Charles, Neo Swee Lin as Ruth, Tan Kheng Hua as Elvira, Selena Tan as Mrs Quek (one of the friends of the Kohs) and Pam Oei as the maid Edith. Yet one can only painfully remember the mess that was 'The Seventh Drawer' to realise that big names do not necessary mean good theatre. But in this case, the experience of these actors added a note of gravitas to the frivolity of the plot. Moreover, the chemistry between the cast members sizzled, while their ease with each other allowed the joyousness inherent in Coward's banter and repartee to shine through.

Neo Swee Lin and Lim Kay Siu gave commendable performances, each astutely portraying their characters' frustrations and occasional bursts of mania, as their situations became more maddening, with an emotional depth. Margaret Chan - trying her very best to be Singapore's Whoopi Goldberg - filled the stage with too much nervous energy to be convincing as someone known to be eccentric. Meanwhile, Pam Oei managed to steal the show at the end with her comic portrayal of the browbeaten maid.

Direction by Glen Goei was skilful - not only was the pace well controlled (the two-and-a-half hours simply flew by), but also the comic timing needed to handle the many twists and turns was spot on. Meanwhile, the set and lighting design simply reeked of class, elegance and professionalism.

BLITHE SPIRIT might lack the charming whimsicality of say a good P.G. Wodehouse story, but as a solid piece of theatrical production, it was a panadol for people tired of the recent spate of arty plays that did not believe that one of the rules of theatre is to entertain.