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Blithe Spirit

Noël Coward
Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue
(2011)

Blithe Spirit publicity photo

Director Thea Sharrock almost does too good a job with this revival of Noël Coward's classic ghostly comedy Blithe Spirit, first seen in 1941, when it must have helped to keep the home fires burning.

Her use of stage business and sight gags is so meticulous and successful that Edith, the usually unremarked maid, threatens to take over the evening before a word has been uttered. This is good news for the gymnastic Jodie Taibi in that role, though eventually, the bigger names take over.

In Blithe Spirit, it is always the actress starring as the charlatan (or not) medium, Madame Arcati, who will be remembered. How could anyone forget Margaret Rutherford, who created the role, on stage and in David Lean's film version, or Peggy Mount playing this role on the radio?

The reason is that the old lady is absolutely barking and, in her latest incarnation, Alison Steadman makes that abundantly clear, having great fun in the process.

Coward's story is a gem. Suave novelist Charles Condomine, played by Robert Bathurst, invites the clairvoyant to join a small house party as part of the research for his next book. With the assistant of her childish control Daphne and bucking all expectations, the dotty ancient manages to call back a ghost from "the other side", causing chaos onstage and hilarity off it.

That is because the flighty, mischievous ghost is Elvira, Charles's first wife who died seven years previously. Ruthie Henshall, best known for her virtuosity in musical parts, does her director proud given sympathetic lighting and the opportunity of a straight role for a change.

Her arrival puts great strain on the current Condomine marriage, making the gorgeously-gowned Hermione Norris, suitably frosty as icy blonde wife #2 Ruth, completely irascible.

From this set up, the central quartet generate innumerable laughs as Elvira, who can only be seen by her former husband, moves into spiritual overdrive, swiftly getting out of control.

The play moves entertainingly to a fine conclusion, in which Hildegard Bechtler's stylish, circular art deco drawing room brings the house down.

This transfer from the Theatre Royal in Bath will not necessarily be the kind of production that will live long in the memory, except the final moments and dear Edith, both of which are potentially unique. Visitors will however get exactly what they came for, around 2½ hours of sophisticated Coward comedy, enhanced by a stream of witty directorial additions.

Visit our sponsor 1st 4 London Theatre to book tickets for Blithe Spirit

Reviewer: Philip Fisher