Blithe Spirit

Noël Coward
The Peter Hall Company
Savoy Theatre
(2004)

Thea Sharrock has been making quite a name for herself with the Peter Hall Company in Bath over the last couple of years. Now, the newly appointed director of the Gate in Notting Hill is enjoying the West End transfer of a quintessentially English play of the 1940s.

In some ways, Blithe Spirit is very reminiscent of perhaps Coward's greatest piece Private Lives, which preceded it by eleven years. The relationship between a man, his current wife and her predecessor is always likely to be fraught but also comic and benefits from many changes of power around the trio.

Miss Sharrock's strength is demonstrated both in the "stage business" to which a play about a mischievous ghost lends itself but also in some fine performances from her cast.

Aden Gillett is strong as "astral bigamist", Charles Condomine, an author who gets more than he has bargained for when he invites the dreadful medium Madame Arcati and her juvenile control Daphne to visit.

Despite the scepticism of all present, his ex-wife Elvira is conjured up and like the genie from the bottle, will not return to her spiritual home before she has had her share of earthly fun.

As the ethereal Elvira, Amanda Drew is a revelation. Simultaneously extremely funny and very sexy, the barefoot ghost in silk night clothes has a whale of a time until she is finally confronted by her misdeeds and some competition from her successor, Joanna Riding's Ruth.

Penelope Keith can be somewhat reminiscent of Joyce Grenfell in her role as the earnest, bumbling medium but, all too often, the only character that is really brought to mind is Miss Keith herself. It is very hard to suspend the disbelief and imagine this specific character rather than seeing Margot from The Good Life.

One other performance is worthy of note, debutante Michelle Terry playing Edith the maid is often reminiscent of a shaking, runtish Pekinese, keen to please but completely unable to do so. Thanks to her director, she gets nearly as many laughs as some of the stars.

Simon Higlett's set seems to present a typical, if very busy sitting room of the period, although the grandfather clock refuses to work. His moment of glory comes in a really explosive, supernatural finale. His costumes capture the period, cravat and smoking jacket for "wounded spaniel" Charles, brown harem pants with matching turban for Madame Arcati and gorgeous dresses with impossibly long cigarette holder for Ruth.

Some people may question whether yet another Noel Coward revival is necessary. Audiences seem to love them and productions like this are always great fun and present honest escapism.

Thea Sharrock with great support, particularly from Miss Drew, makes the evening, complete with two intervals taking it beyond two and a half hours, something rather more. The humour is complemented by some sparkling conversation packed with witty aphorisms, an insight into marriage and jealousy, and the chance to see a TV icon in the flesh.

Philip Fisher