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Coward-ly Debut? Nö-el Way!

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Sir Nöel Coward by Allan Warren

The prodigious and highly prolific Sir Nöel Coward wrote this transdimensional comedy of manners in five days, shortly after his home was demolished by a German bomb. Blithe Spirit opened July 1941 and ran for nearly 2,000 performances.

Coward’s contributions to the popular theater industry earned him a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth in 1970. One suspects that royal acknowledgment might have arrived a great deal earlier had Coward been more sexually circumspect.

In any case Blithe Spirit is the perennial choice of amateur theater groups in search of tried and tested material. The only problem of restaging something as familiar and well-worn as this is that one can at best hope to pass muster – standing ovations are highly unlikely as these are reserved for outstanding originality and brilliance.

Producer Lee Yee Yang greeted me at the door a tad anxiously. It seems the fledgling Chaotic Harmony Theatre company had seen its share of teething problems and director Pavanjeet Singh decided on Blithe Spirit because he had previously worked on Present Laughter, another Nöel Coward classic, under the auspices of HELP Institute’s Literary Society.

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Producer Lee Yee Yang: teething problems

As the evening unfolded I was struck by an odd sense of déjà vu: it was like seeing the future superimposed on a tableau from the past.  Adorned with nondescript framed pictures, gramophone, and sofa, the traditional living room set (marred only by a poorly designed fireplace that looked like a collapsed Christmas hamper) was something right out of the 1970s. I was half-expecting the shade of Bosco D’Cruz to manifest as Charles Condomine (I can picture the late great Bosco in this plum role); or perhaps Leslie Dawson or K.K. Nair, playing opposite a winsome Chuah Guat Eng or Faridah Merican…

Instead I saw a bold future in theater for the feisty and talented young company. College theater is one thing but pulling it off before a paying public is quite another.

At 20 director Pavanjeet hasn’t directed enough plays to have found a distinctive style, but his fluent handling of conventional popular theater forms is impressive and reveals a natural instinct for stagecraft.  He was also commendable as Edward the hyperactive butler.

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Margaret Rutherford, Kay Hammond & Fay Compton in the 1941 production of Blithe Spirit

Sanjiv Gnaneswaran initially had problems looking the part of Charles Condomine – but his self–assurance and comfortable command of the character eventually won through. Chung Ee Von’s Ruth Condomine came across a trifle high-pitched but she displayed a charming tenacity in her depiction of an insecure wife. Liza Oh warmed up admirably to her ghostly rôle as the late Elvira Condomine –  and only occasionally looked a little too young to be convincing. The same can be said of the delightfully animated Amelia Chen’s colorful and quirky Madame Arcati. Ms Chen is evidently a natural performer, relishing every moment she’s on stage. She is blessed with a mellifluous stage voice and I bet she can sing too.

Shareena Hatta and Luo Bo Feng held their own as Violet and Dr George Bradman (though I feel Bo Feng would have done well to sacrifice his ponytail for the part –or he could have donned a doctorish wig).

It was sometimes difficult to overlook the fact that the cast ranged in age from 18 to 20. Maturity and worldly-wisdom are hard to fake, but I felt privileged to be witness to their transition from HELP Institute amateurs to young stage professionals. They did it all themselves – and they got it right. Most of it at any rate.

Such a precocious spirit of enterprise combined with such promising talent surely warrants the wholehearted applause and support of all theater-lovers. I’d say this time the butler really did it – namely he proved his mettle as the youngest director on the scene.

16 November 2001

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About Antares

Author, illustrator, actor, musician, composer, arts reviewer, blogger, Abominable Jungleman. Also a stargate activator, ceremonial guardian, interdimensional gatekeeper, pendragon-in-exile, and retired deity.

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