Sometimes, I have to respectfully disagree. Not just with my colleague Pete Wood, who reviewed this production at its out-of-town debut in Bath this summer, but also with Richard Eyre, who is quoted as calling the play “a clunking one-joke farce about the afterlife".
Myself, I think that Blithe Spirit – written by Noel Coward in just five days and originally put on stage a mere six weeks later in 1941 - is as blissfully outrageous a popular comedy as it is surprisingly courageous.
Here, in the middle of the Second World War, Coward dared to write a riotously and preposterously comical take on death. His familiar demonstrations of the poisonous state of marital relations are given the delicious spin of a séance that summons up the spirit of the husband’s late wife, who proceeds to wreak havoc on the already testy state of his second marriage.
As shimmeringly played by Amanda Drew, the “ghost” wife is as throaty and quixotic as a young Vanessa Redgrave and a hilariously mischievous foil to the glacially uptight, cut-glass accented current wife of Joanna Riding. Meanwhile, Aden Gillett looks on with understandable trepidation and bewilderment as the man they’re sparring for in this most unusual ménage-a-troi (another variation on a Coward comic staple).
Brokering the worlds of the living and the dead is a glamorously turban-headed Penelope Keith, to the mannerisms born as the medium Madame Arcati. Illusionist Derren Brown could learn a thing or two from her about timing and style when it comes to running a theatrical séance, as he also did in a summer West End run this year but to far less amusing effect.
Thea Sharrock’s production, by contrast, lights a rich comic fuse under these proceedings, which, on Simon Higlett’s handsome set, ultimately explodes quite literally in a final coup-de-theatre that would be unfair to give away. This Rolls Royce of a production has glided effortlessly into town, and should purr along spreading its giddy humour quite happily for some time to come.
- Mark Shenton
NOTE: The following review dates from August 2004 and an earlier tour stop of this production.
Sometimes, all I need is the Eyre that I read. So when Richard, the former National Theatre director, describes Blithe Spirit, summoned here by Thea Sharrock, as "a clunking one-joke farce about the afterlife", I have to concur.
The set, the living room of an 18th-century country house by Simon Higlett, is ravishing enough, and the performances robust with a typically bravura turn by Penelope Keith.
One wonders, though, why Peter Hall felt moved to revive the play. Where Wilde still sings and stings - Shaw too, when he steps down off his soapbox - Coward, here at least, seems past his sell-by date. Director Sharrock may have put a brave face on Coward, but while this Spirit quickens, it fails to come to life.
As the play opens, author Charles Condomine, is about to host a séance in order to provide material for his new book. The happy medium's been invited to chair the proceedings is Madame Arcati, played here by Penelope Keith as an equally forceful, but less astringent, Margot from The Good Life.
Unfortunately for Condomine, the séance works only too well and the wraith of his dead first wife, Elvira, materialises. What makes matters worse for Charles is that only he can see and hear her. Comic chaos, as they say, ensues.
Coward's characters talk, as someone once remarked, "like typewriters". Inevitably arch, the results are sometimes funny as when Charles, describing Elvira's death, explains how, convalescing from pneumonia, she was "watching one of those BBC light entertainment programmes and died of a heart attack". But there are fewer of these sort of lines than you'd think.
Amanda Drew as Elvira is impressively wayward and seductive. Keith, following in the large footsteps of Margaret Rutherford, makes the part of Madame Arcati her own. Joanna Riding is fine as Ruth, Charles' second Wife, while Aden Gillett as Condomine is occasionally indistinct but improves in stature as the evening wears on. Michelle Terry earns plenty of laughs as the maid, hyperactive and dotty in a Su Pollard sort of way.
Wit, Coward once remarked, should be served in small helpings, like caviar, not spread around like marmalade. Sadly, the pickings here are thin.
- Pete Wood (reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bath)