Thursday, 20 March 2014

Theatre review: Blithe Spirit

You know that TV show about the old woman who commits a murder every week, frames someone for it, then writes a book about it? It's called something like Murder, She Did. Well, it turns out she has another way of profiting from death, with a sideline as a dodgy medium who claims to communicate with ghosts. Or to put it another way, Angela Lansbury has returned to the West End after a few centuries' absence, to play Madame Arcati in Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit. Charles (Charles Edwards) and his second wife Ruth (Janie Dee) are holding a dinner party followed by a séance led by the local eccentric, Madame Arcati. Charles is a writer of mystery novels, and his true motive for hosting the evening is to observe the psychic, and use her as inspiration for a fraud in his latest book. But the medium's haphazard approach to raising the dead actually yields results when the ghost of Charles' first wife Elvira (Jemima Rooper) returns - and wants him back.

Noël Coward is one of those playwrights I feel should appeal to me more than he actually does; Blithe Spirit was actually last seen in Shaftesbury Avenue only three years ago, in a production that didn't really do much for me. But that was at the Apollo, and even when that theatre still had a ceiling it didn't have seats from which the stage was visible, so until now as far as I knew this was a play about the back of someone's head.


Even from restricted-view slip seats the view at the neighbouring Gielgud is much better, but I think there's also a zippier production here, from Michael Blakemore, to help me warm to the play more. There's certainly a cast I'd been looking forward to, and they lived up to this promise: Edwards is well-suited to the snappy exchanges of dialogue in Coward - and alternates amusingly between exasperation at finding himself with two wives - one of whom only he can see - and a rebellious nature that does nothing to make things easier for himself.


Dee is great as the flustered second wife, moving from thinking her husband's going mad to realising he's telling the truth and she has to compete with a dead woman. My favourite performance was Rooper's, a real gleeful sense of mischief to her sexy ghost. Of course most of the audience were there to see Dame Angela's rare appearance this side of the Atlantic, as she turns Madame Arcati's dottyness up to eleven and scampers surprisingly sprightly across the stage. As she's 88 the fact that she's got a bit of electronic help can be forgiven - her voice was definitely amplified, and the Princess Leia-style Danish pastry hairdo she sports must hide something over her ears, whether it's hearing aids or an earpiece for prompts I don't know. I still don't hold with applauding her entrance though - we're not colonials, dear.


Patsy Ferran also deserves mention for a scene-stealing Edith, the unpredictable maid. Noël Coward's status as one of the masters of the catty one-liner is in no dispute, and the fact that this is served so well in this production goes a long way to making me like him more. I still don't think he's as good as getting a plot across concisely, so the moments where the quips aren't in evidence dragged for me, but for the most part I enjoyed this more than most Coward productions I've seen.

Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward is booking until the 7th of June at the Gielgud Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.

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