Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit was written to cheer everyone up in the War, even though Graham Greene thought that a comedy of death and ghosts was a weary exhibition of bad taste.
Is it bad taste to make fun of psychic babble, séances, poltergeists and “ectoplasmic manifestations” in a style of drawing room comedy with high pressure dialogue, many good jokes and a keen sense of social decorum and its vulgar opposite?
The play still seems strikingly fresh and original, and brilliantly entertaining in its analysis of two husk-like marriages reeking of mortality and the after-life; the chill wind is blowing through the living room curtains in Kent from the very start of the play.
The first marriage was that of novelist Charles Condomine (Robert Bathurst) to the dead but still mischievous Elvira of Ruthie Henshall in a grey silk shroud; the second, his current alliance with the extremely svelte and snobbish Ruth of Hermione Norris, austerely elegant in a series of beautifully cut costumes in scarlet, mauve and mustard.
For many, the role of the catalytic Madame Arcati is still associated with Margaret Rutherford pottering about in the film. But Alison Steadman seizes the role by the scruff of the neck, like a bossy scout mistress indulging her own hexes and trances: she’s been invited round by Charles as a research tool for his next book.
Unwittingly, she summons Elvira, whom only Charles can see, and there follows a series of wittily executed dialogues at crossed purposes, misinterpretations, rows and recriminations, with Arcati bobbing along while the Condomines’ dinner guests, the dullish Bradmans (Bo Poraj and Charlotte Thornton) retreat to the sidelines.
There’s also a slow-motion maid – Jodie Taibi enters under orders to stop rushing about and excruciatingly adjusts a drinks tray while sliding to the floor in the full splits – who provides the clue to all the knocking and shaking. Thea Sharrock’s revival only enters the occasional dead patch when there’s too much strain in the acting, or stress on the lines; but there is quite a lot of that.
The overall rhythm is not yet as easy and fluent as it should be, but Steadman has certainly rescued Arcati from the grip of her predecessors – it’s an original and consistently daring, almost cheeky, performance – and the elegant cream design by Hildegard Bechtler suggests art deco nudging into New Look, with a splendid catastrophe of falling books and flashing lights at the end.