Exactly 68 years ago, in May 1941at the height of the London Blitz, almost as a response to the destruction, Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit, describing his idea as “very gay, superficial comedy about a ghost”. This, one of his wittiest comedies, apparently makes light of death, and eventually places not one but two very worldly, vocal ghosts centre stage. It must have been just what the public needed, for it ran for 1,997 performances, outdone only by The Mousetrap.
Watching Orla O'Loughlin’s sprightly, elegant revival, it’s easy to see the appeal of Coward’s tale of the society novelist who inadvertently summons his late first wife from ‘the other side’ at a séance he’s organised to get material for a book. A ghost who yearns for such earthly delights as a ride in a car and a trip to the cinema must have struck a chord.
Before a word of Coward’s killer dialogue is spoken, in a delicious opening, Emily Wachter’s scene-stealing daffy parlour-maid Edith dances surreptitiously around Chloe Lamford’s nicely-observed 1930s drawing room, to the first of a series of nostalgic numbers from the gramophone, precariously balancing a tray of assorted cocktail glasses. And already Philip Gladwell’s soundscape and lighting create just the right atmosphere, looking forward to some fun supernatural effects to come.
Hywel Morgan hits just the right note of comic consternation as Charles Condomine, the novelist who inadvertently finds himself henpecked by two wives at once. Morgan convincingly creates Coward’s spoilt erstwhile male chauvinist brat, almost shockingly casual about the untimely death of his spouse.
Caitlin Mottram’s down-to-earth Ruth, the second wife who comes to regret her fascination with the first, is well matched with Kelly Williams’ ethereal Elvira, complete with pearly grey floaty cocktail frock and make-up. In a nice touch, it’s the ghostly Elvira who gets to snuggle up to hubby as the body language between Ruth and Charles gets as chilly as a haunted house.
There’s fine support from Antony Gabriel and Joanne Redman as Dr and Mrs Bradman, the couple who make up four for dinner - and séance. To Claire Vousden falls the role of one of Coward’s most glorious comic creations, Madam Arcati, the medium who calls Elvira back into being. Vousden’s eccentric bluestocking, recalling Virginia Woolf in her handsome tunic dress, is a wonderfully earnest delight, whether she’s going into a trance or tossing her gloves to the obliging Edith.
The comic business with the gloves is just one of the inventive touches that makes this affectionate revival such fun.
- Judi Herman