Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Thea Sharrock
Reviewer: Catherine Love
Death may not be an obvious subject for comedy, but Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, brought back to the West End by award-winning director Thea Sharrock, creates plenty of laughs from beyond the grave. Joining Ghost Stories and the long running Woman in Black as the third ghoulish drama in the West End, this revival is more likely to produce giggles than goosebumps, taking a decidedly playful approach to the afterlife.
Writer Charles Condomine (Robert Bathurst) invites eccentric medium Madame Arcati (Alison Steadman) to dinner in the spirit of research, hoping for material for his latest novel and to provide some entertainment for his dinner guests into the bargain. Charles, his wife Ruth (Hermione Norris) and their guests are sceptical to say the least and their doubts appear to be confirmed by a ludicrous, scene-stealing display of spirit-summoning grunts and gestures from Steadman, who once again demonstrates her comic prowess in this deliciously silly role. She makes a hilarious, charmingly batty psychic and enthusiastically throws herself – often quite literally – into the part.
Although the project initially appears to be a failure, Madame Arcati’s energetic antics have unwittingly summoned the mischievous spirit of Charles’s first wife Elvira (Ruthie Henshall), who does not plan to be returning to the ‘other side’ any time soon. From here on in Elvira’s playful ghost reigns over the chaos as she trips lightly around the stage barefoot, leaving behind a trail of destruction. Henshall is a delightfully impish spirit, by turns charming and petulant, her luminosity rarely dimming. Her mischief is nicely offset by the fiery complaints of spurned Ruth, played with poise by Norris in the standout performance of the night. As Charles’s elegant, aloof and understandably irascible second wife Norris dazzles, confidently striding around the stage, spitting out her furiously clipped vowels and delivering Ruth’s acid retorts with aplomb.
Charles, as Ruth states at one point, has been dominated throughout his life by women, and Bathurst seems to follow in his character’s footsteps. His performance is by no means bad, painting an amusing picture of exasperation, but he is overshadowed by the three strong women. Nevertheless, in the spiky exchanges with his two wives Coward’s witty dialogue fizzes and crackles, rattling along at impressive speed. Sharrock’s direction successfully exploits these quick-fire quarrels for the most part, although the swift pace sometimes skates over some of the jokes.
The domestic chaos, like Charles’s marriages, occasionally threatens to turn stale, although these moments are few and brief. There is also the danger of the comedy tipping over the edge into absurdity, particularly when the over-the-top Madame Arcati puts in an appearance, but by the second half the urge to embrace the silliness is irresistible. Hildegard Bechtler’s set completes the descent into the ridiculous with a magnificent finale of cascading books and sparking light fixtures, not to mention a Phantom of the Opera-esque falling chandelier.
Coward’s 1940s comedy, with its clipped Queen’s English and jokes at the expense of the servants, stands now as something of a period piece; an eccentric, quintessentially British antiquity, rather like Madame Arcati. This new production may not be earth-shattering, but Sharrock’s light and playful directorial touch dusts off this quirky, entertaining play and preserves it as an enjoyable, sepia-tinted portrait of the past.
Runs until 18 June