All the signs about this revival of Noel Coward’s biggest hit are promising: an award-winning West End and Broadway director, a stellar cast including one of Britain’s best-loved character actresses and the prodigiously successful producing talents of the Theatre Royal, Bath.
Which makes it all the more bemusing that it doesn’t come off with quite the fireworks one might expect.
There’s much to enjoy, from the stunning and elaborate set (Hildegard Bechtler) to the charmingly wicked Ruthie Henshall, proving as the ghost Elvira that she’s just as much at home in a straight play as she is in a musical.
Coward’s 1941 play – these days firmly a period piece – centres on writer Charles Condomine’s plan to invite the medium Madame Arcati to hold a séance. His intention is to plunder her “tricks of the trade” for his latest novel, but the scheme backfires badly when the ghost of his first wife is summoned up, much to the despair of his second, Ruth.
As Charles and Ruth, Robert Bathurst and Hermione Norris reprise their husband-and-wife act from television’s Cold Feet, their real-life familiarity reflected in their on-stage performances. Alison Steadman makes a decent Madame Arcati, making the most of her bizarre character’s foibles and quirks.
But there’s also a definite sense of the ghost of Noel lurking somewhere in the background: the rapid-fire speed of delivery across the cast is no substitute for Coward’s crisp pacing, and both lines and laughs are lost in the mad rush to be witty. Similarly, the lighting is both dingy and in places crude, with dim footlights casting obscuring shadows, all of which contributes to a feeling of everything amounting to less than the sparkling, bright gem that Coward originally wrote.
It’s a perfectly serviceable, solid production, directed competently if a little unimaginatively by Thea Sharrock, whose previous credits include the Daniel Radcliffe Equus.
It’s certain to do good business on this pre-London tour, and good luck to it. I just can’t help wishing for a few more of those fireworks.