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Blithe Spirit (Manchester)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Everyone loves a ghost story, especially one that can be taken with a pinch of salt. Noel Coward knew this when he wrote Blithe Spirit, his light-hearted play which debuted in 1941 and is now playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre for the festive season.

Set in 1931, the play has not dated as it remains a well written, if somewhat wordy piece. It therefore requires briskly delivered dialogue, deft movements and complicated special effects all of which the cast and backstage crew achieve,  effortlessly and with panache.

The plot centres on Charles Condomine (Milo Twomey), a socialite and novelist who marries Ruth after the death of his first wife, Elvira. Suranne Jones (formerly Karen McDonald in Coronation Street) plays Ruth, the innocent second wife.

Their marital bliss is interrupted when Madame Arcati, an extrovert medium, arrives at Charles’ invitation to amuse dinner guests – and he gets more than be bargains for! Annette Badland forsakes her customary TV and film work to give theatregoers a real treat.  She plays the psychic with an endearing dash of dottiness. Nobody is more surprised than she when she successfully conjures up the sulky, scheming spirit of Elvira. She captivates the audience with exaggerated eccentricities of speech and movement.   

Nelly Harker’s Elvira is not a frightening ghost. The only person who can see her is Charles and this creates havoc with his second marriage. She floats seductively by in an ethereal though cheeky way wearing a silver Charleston-style garment with matching head band. The theatre in the round, gives her the opportunity to pop up from all directions which she does with alacrity.

When Charles chats to Elvira, and Ruth thinks he is talking to her, is perfectly timed and very funny as it is played as a classic farcical scene. Katie West as the incompetent maid, Edith, gets almost as many laughs as the main characters though her hasty entrances become slightly tiresome after a while, as it all feels slightly repetitive.

Jones and Twomey though play it poker-faced and deliver each classic line with confidence and conviction, securing plenty of laughs when required. They make an attractive couple whose lives are disrupted by the excellent Harker as the spirit of the title. 

The costumes, courtesy of Nicola Meredith and the Wardrobe department are imaginative and evocative of the 1930s.   The art deco set designed by Liz Ascroft reflects that time, too.

You know that any play directed by Royal Exchange Artistic Director, Sarah Frankcom is going to be a good one and this doesn’t disappoint, as her Blithe Spirit proves to be the ideal antidote to panto this Christmas.

- Julia Taylor


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