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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Apollo


  Madame Arcati, Elvira/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

Noel Coward’s dialogue needs to be scintillating – sharp, crisp, cutting. Anything less will not do. That’s the problem with this latest production of Blithe Spirit. It may be enjoyable enough, but for the most part it fails to rise above run of the mill. Too often there simply is not enough snap.

Premiered in 1941, and written, Coward claimed, in just five days, Blithe Spirit was his biggest West End success. It ran for 1,997 performances, just one show less than Hair would clock up more than a quarter of a century later.

It involves a writer, Charles Condomine, who is doing research for a crime novel about a homicidal medium. In order to pick up some jargon and tricks of the trade he invites Madame Arcati, the local dingbat mystic, to a dinner that will be followed by a séance. Things go awry when Arcati turns out not to be a charlatan after all. To her own surprise, she manages to conjure up Condomine’s first wife, Elvira, who has been dead for seven years. The rub is that no one but Charles can either see or hear her, and that includes his current wife, Ruth. The wonderfully witty cross-purposes dialogue that ensues as Charles tries to talk to both of his wives at once is Coward at his snippy best.

It is quickly revealed that Elvira has nefarious designs on Charles. She wants to do away with him so that he can join her in the afterlife. Instead, she only succeeds in accidently killing Ruth. Thoroughly loathing one another and not satisfied with Charles’s new state as an “astral bigamist,” the two ghosts try to get Arcati to send them back where they came from. Cue more antics and inept trance tries.

The much-loved Alison Steadman has been encouraged to pitch her Madame Arcati way over the top. The result is caricature rather than character. She’s tough as old boots, a bit vulgar, and utterly impervious to mockery. (And, of course, Steadman has an iconic ghost of her own to contend with – Margaret Rutherford. She was the original Arcati and also starred in the 1945 David Lean film. Rutherford’s approach was far softer and certainly far more vulnerable than Steadman’s.)

The always-delightful Ruthie Henshell is too girlish as Elvira, perhaps to strike a contrast with Hermione Norris as Ruth, who is the only member of this cast to capture the sophisticated edge that is found in plays such as Design for Living and Private Lives.

Robert Bathurst as the male of the species is simply a blank. He’s a cipher who can’t compete with the various women in his life. In fact, the play reveals itself to be an acidic purview on the battle of the sexes. In the long run it is difficult – perhaps impossible, or at least implausible – to imagine Coward having much respect for the institution of marriage.

The direction is by Thea Sharrock (Equus with Daniel Radcliffe, The Misanthrope with Keira Knightley). It is workable, sometimes mundane, and too often misses the breakneck pace that fuelled the screwball comedies of the era.

According to designer Hildegard Bechtler, ghosts are barefoot and mint green was the color of the moment for furniture in 1941 – along with a white baby grand in the corner. It’s all far too palatial for an author meant to be living in rural comfort.

This is a great comedy. The film is a classic. Even High Spirits, the 1964 Broadway musical version with Beatrice Lillie as Arcati and Tammy Grimes as Elvira was a wayward treat. All that this current production can do is to remind us of other, better takes on the text.


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