Conjuring Up a Comedy

Brian Bedford fondly remembers Noël Coward as he prepares to direct the witty and whimsical Blithe Spirit

By Claire Mastrangelo

What would you do if your first wife came back from the dead – and you had remarried during her absence? That’s the question that Noël Coward poses in his classic comedy Blithe Spirit, playing at the Avon Theatre next season.

First staged in England in 1941, Blithe Spirit is the story of one Charles Condomine (to be played by Ben Carlson), an author who hosts a séance at his home in Kent as research for his latest novel. Little does he suspect that his deceased wife, Elvira (Michelle Giroux), will return from the other side, or that he will be the only one who can see and hear her. Proving to his living wife, Ruth (Sara Topham), that he’s not mad is only half the battle; then he has to figure out how to entertain his ethereal house guest without stepping out of his matrimonial bounds. Trying to keep everyone happy, it turns out, is a hilarious challenge.

Blithe Spirit’s director, Brian Bedford, is widely hailed as an authority on Coward’s work – not only because he has performed in and directed so much of it, but also because he knew the playwright personally.

“The first time I met Noël was probably in 1958 when I was in Five Finger Exercise by Peter Shaffer,” he recalls. “Everyone came to see it because it was a huge hit, and I believe Noël was among those people. My character’s mother was being played by Adrienne Allen, who’d been the first Sybil in Private Lives. And so Noël knew Adrienne.”

Over the years Mr. Bedford crossed paths with the playwright and actor on numerous occasions, particularly during their days in New York City. (They met socially, and also worked together on Richard Rodgers’s musical version of G.B. Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion.) One of Mr. Bedford’s regrets is not taking Coward up on an invitation to spend a winter with him in Jamaica. “For some reason I couldn’t go,” he says. “That was my last chance because about a year later, I think, he died.

“I absolutely worshipped him. I thought he was just a magical guy. And of course he was incredibly good company; he spoke with the same kind of wit and original energy that is in his plays.”

Mr. Bedford has worked closely with those pieces, so he knows whereof he speaks. “I think this production of Blithe Spirit will be the fourth or fifth that I’ve done,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to it because of the company. I think it will be the best cast of the play that I’ve ever had.” The plum role of Madame Arcati, the eccentric medium who inadvertently summons up Elvira, will be played by Seana McKenna. James Blendick and Chick Reid will play Dr. and Mrs. Bradman.

Designs for the production are still being developed, but there is one thing to which Mr. Bedford can speak. “Of course, we have ghosts in the play,” he says, “so we want to make the most of that. I’ve never seen a ghost, but I can imagine that if I did it would be a thrilling moment – so we’re going to stage that as excitingly as we possibly can.”

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