THERE’S a powerful initial shock, in seeing Noel Coward’s great 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit briskly moved forward into the age of mobile phones and iPads; yet in this second show of Pitlochry’s summer season, the theatre’s former associate director Gemma Fairlie and a terrific seven-strong cast make a brilliant job of demonstrating just how how much Coward’s searing insights into love, sex and marriage still have to tell us about the way we live now.
Blithe Spirit, Pitlochry Festival Theatre **** | The Crucible, Pitlochry Festival Theatre *** | Amelie The Musical, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ****
So on a crisply minimalist set by Adrian Rees, a modern-day Ruth and Charles Condamine, dressed like the owners of a successful tech start-up, start to dabble with spiritualism in a recognisable 21st century spirit of slightly reckless cynicism. Enter Deirdre Davis as the medium Madam Arcati, like a former Scottish schoolteacher gone full new-age; and enter also, after an experimental seance, the pouting blonde ghost of Charles’s late wife Elvira, brilliantly clad by Adrian Rees in a searing scarlet that cuts straight across Ruth’s tasteful range of green-blue smart-casual outfits.
Cue some brilliantly well-observed marital by-play, as Ruth at first believes she is being gaslit and lied to as part of some ploy to end the marriage. Claire Dargo is superb as Ruth, bringing a whole 21st century feminist awareness to her struggle to grasp what is happening; Ali Watt is equally impressive as a young but brilliantly observed Condamine. Add a male assistant called Eddy – played with flair by David Rankine – in the role of the blundering maid, Edith, and you have a Blithe Spirit to remember; one that gives full weight to the epic battle of the sexes at the centre of the drama, and is all the more powerful for it.
This year’s Pitlochry production of The Crucible – directed by new artistic director Elizabeth Newman – is even more ambitious. Featuring a cast of 17, and a set by Adrian Rees based around a full-size model of Pitlochry’s Shoogly Bridge, the production tries to give both a local edge and the occasional riff of contemporary rhythm to Arthur Miller’s great 1953 drama, set in 17th century Massachusetts, about the psychology of the witch-hunt, and how quickly such attempts at moral “cleansing” can descend into homicidal madness.
At a moment when the need to understand this kind of thinking has never been greater, though, this Pitlochry production achieves many moments of high drama, without finally bringing as much clarity or insight as it seems to promise. The production is exceptionally strong in evoking the village community of Salem, and its shocked reaction to the sudden violence of the threat from the young girls who have begun to denounce local women as witches.
It’s less effective later, though, in finding its way towards the full significance of farmer John Proctor’s final sacrifice; and often visually confusing, not least in a final image which seems to consign Proctor and the heroic Rebecca Nurse to the flames of hell, before sending the audience home to the spectacularly incongruous sound of high Anglican Victorian hymns being sung in some English cathedral.
In Edinburgh, meanwhile, Amelie The Musical, at the King’s Theatre, involves absolutely no attempt to engage with reality, in this century or any other. Instead, the show – based on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s much-loved 2001 film –offers a soft-focus millennial dream, set in 1997, of a world in which people are always falling towards each other, guided by the force of love; and where even super-shy Amelie, a waitress in an eccentric Montmartre cafe, is inspired to perform anonymous acts of kindness, which eventually lead to her own happy ending.
All of this is ravishingly staged, in a production originally from the Watermill, Newbury, on a magically romantic Parisian set by Madeleine Girling, and by a company of 16 brilliant actor-musicians, hammering their way through Daniel Messe’s score on a wonderful collection of 20th century European instruments.
For myself, I ran out of patience with the show’s long-drawn out romantic story well before the end, and found the warbling sub-Sondheim lyrics of some of its 35 songs increasingly hard to take. But I seemed to be in a minority of one among a delighted audience; and the infinitely talented cast, led by the lovely Audrey Brisson as Amelie, certainly deserved every moment of the loving and rapturous ovation they received.
Blithe Spirit and The Crucible are in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until September; Amelie The Musical is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, today, and King’s Theatre, Glasgow, 19-24 August