By Gillie ‘Elvira’ Tunley.
This March, the Shinfield Players shone with an effervescent performance of Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward in an effortlessly stylish production by Maggie Smith.
We are spirited into the elegant period set, with its gracious garden aspect… the lyrical calm interrupted by the scurrying “yes mm” maid Edith (the delightfully obsequious and bobbing Karen Bird) as she waits on the Condomines – the practical and brisk Ruth (robustly played by the accomplished Hannah Walker) and the supercilious Charles (played with charismatic assurance by Matthew Lugg).
We sense an underlying tension in their relationship as they allude to the first wife, the morally untidy yet alluring Elvira. The scene shifts to a subduedly lit dinner party. Enter the wildly unconventional Madam Arcati (a deliciously eccentric performance by Sharon Wakefield) uttering necrophantic nonsense as she conjures up the spirits of the dead, much to the cynical amusement of the other guests – Dr Bradman (played with quiet authority by Adam Wells) and his wife (a charmingly bubbly performance from Caroline White).
As the haunting strains of Always fade away, we meet the new house guest… Elvira (the languidly beguiling Caroline McArthur). Hilarious confusion ensues, with Coward’s witty and acerbic script at its slick best. The plot twists and turns deviously before, finally, the bay-branch-wielding Madam Arcati, wildly incanting, manages to rid the despairing Charles of his, by now two, astral bigamists. He bids them a jaunty farewell and, as he leaves the house, they respond in appropriate plate-crashing style in a spectacular ectoplasmic finale!
This was a superbly entertaining and stylish production and the entire cast and crew are to be hugely congratulated. I can’t wait to visit my old ‘haunt’ again.
Gillie Tunley and the Shinfield Players Theatre
By Matthew Farrall.
Whitley Pump theatre reviewer and critic Gillie Tunley has a good reason to remember the Noël Coward play Blithe Spirit and the Shinfield venue, because 28 years previously she shone in the role of Elvira in the very same play and theatre.
Gillie’s warm and vivid thespian scrapbook lovingly catalogues the colourful costumes, handsome and charming fellow actors and bright spotlight atmosphere of the place in 1990 when, according to reviews, the play went down a storm.
Newspaper reviewer Frank Terry wrote at the time “one could hardly hope to find a more bewitching Elvira than Gillie Tunley. With her too-innocent smile, her peevish pout and her mischievous sense of fun she made the unfortunate Charles rue the day he dabbled in the occult”.
That description could well fit Gillie herself today! She went on to appear in, and at one time was the producer of, several more ambitious productions at Shinfield before moving on to various professional engagements, including the Edinburgh festival.
This former RAF Shinfield NAAFI building has been the home of the Shinfield Players Theatre since 1972 when it was bought from the Ministry of Defence for £72. There are 156 soft comfy seats, a distinctive deep stage, good acoustics, a very reasonably priced bar and a large room perfect for socialising with some excitable theatre talk. Even though there are many homely theatrical elements with photographic displays and dramatic touches, the place still seems slightly haunted by memories of the wax moustaches and slang of a NAAFI bop where no doubt airmen got thoroughly shedded on poets day while dodging the brass hats and maybe having a dinner on Liz.
The next show is the highly-rated and inspirational musical Dagenham Girls, starting on Friday 20 April. We would recommend you go and see a high-quality show in this rather wonderful, well-run and atmospheric theatre.