Bell, Book and Candle

John van Druten
Alces Productions
Greenwich Playhouse
(2011)

Bell, Book and Candle production photo

Van Druten's 1950s commercially successful play about a family of witches, Bell, Book and Candle, stands up fairly well after sixty years. Mobile phones excepted, you could play it modern. It is set in the New York apartment of Gillian Holroyd who's taken a fancy to her tenant in the flat upstairs, her interest whetted further when she discovers he is about to become engaged to a schooldays rival.

At first she decides it would be unfair to use witchcraft to attract him but then has second thoughts and casts her spell with the assistance of her cat Pyewacket (named for the familiar of a seventeenth-century witch exposed by witch finder Mathew Hopkins).

It works and so do other plans involving a writer in whom her 'victim,' publisher Shepherd Henderson, is interested. But developments threaten exposure and things get complicated. It is a slight piece by a skilled playmaker but makes an amusing evening, though sadly it doesn't provide any useable spells for future times when they might helpful.

Zoë Teverson makes Gillian one of those slinky ladies that slightly overplay the feminine wiles and handles the transition from unemotional witch to sobbing and lovelorn as believably as the tale allows and she is sumptuously dressed by Giulia Scrimieri - with a glittering headpiece and strings of pearls.

Carole Street as her aunt, who is careless about her witchcraft, and Duncan MacInnes as an opportunist but charming brother give strong support. This is a family so well bred they have entirely English accents. Stephen Cavanagh's Shepherd on the other hand is Ivy League American, culture and charm his attraction rather than a throbbing sexuality, though he proves pretty passionate as the plot moves on.

These are all the sort of roles that owe their personalities to the people playing them as much as to the characterisation in the writing and the actors serve them well, especially John Sears as Sidney Redlitch who makes the author, who has turned his talents to investigating witches, a distinctive American personality.

The final character, Pyewacket, doesn't get a live performer but a white and marmalade toy cat, though cleverly operated so that what seems inanimate on its cushion when the audience comes in when the play begins greets them with a raised paw and a turning head. The effect is spoiled a little in the way the actors hold him, they'd have to give a real cat more support.

Director Mark Fiesser keeps everything running smoothly in a simply mounted production that puts the emphasis on the actors, though designer John C. Scheffler has a nice touch in that during blackout the rather awful paintings on the wall turn into fluorescent occult images.

"Bell, Book and Candle" runs at the Greenwich Playhouse until 4th December 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton