Review: Blithe Spirit
Image courtesy Tower Theatre
Ruth - Anna Fiorentini
Edith - Myriam Laurent
Charles - David Hankinson
Dr Bradman - Alistair Maydon
Mrs Bradman - Louisa Shindle
Madame Arcati - Alison Liney
Elvira - Sophie King
Charles Condomine's dabbling in the occult results in hilarious consequences when Madame Arcati, a fraudulent medium, accidentally summons the ghost of Charles' ex-wife, Elvira, who then sets about sabotaging his current marriage to his second wife, Ruth.
The last time I saw what is arguably Noël Coward's most famous play, was at the Apollo Theatre in 2011 with the equally famous actor, Alison Steadman, in the plumb role of Madame Arcati (you can still read my review of that production here).
At that time, I certainly felt that this play had seen better days - largely because the comedy seems dated now, even if it might have appeared in advance of its era when it first made it to the West End in 1941 (running for almost 2,000 performances).
Given it's a work from The Master, the play itself still has pulling power given the magnetism of the Coward brand, but I suspect interest in it is waning.
But just to contradict that, a new version featuring Jennifer Saunders of Absolutely Fabulous fame is wending its way round the country and will fetch up at the West End's Duke of York's Theatre from 5 March 2020.
Blithe Spirit attracts some controversy given its depiction of women.
Writing pointedly about the 2011 West End run, Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph said "[the play] strikes me as a heartless and at times downright misogynistic piece"
My own view is that the play pokes fun at marriage rather than women - the marital state being fair game for comic exploitation at the time Coward wrote it.
Still, I can see how some might share Charles Spencer's strident view, though I would be surprised if many would define it as a vitriolic misogynistic attack.
But you'll have to see the play and make your own mind up on that score.
Light comedy is the basic order of the day in Blithe Spirit with little in the script to effect rolling-in-the-aisles hilarity, and that can prompt extreme efforts in the visual comedy department to squeeze more giggles from the piece.
In fact, the playwright himself also described it as a 'light comedy'.
Apparently written by Mr Coward in less than a week, the plot is pretty straight-forward, though strays deliberately into the realm of the unusual with supernatural plot elements.
(From left) Louisa Shindle (Mrs Bradman), David Hankinson (Charles),
Alison Liney (Madame Arcati), Anna Fiorentini (Ruth), Alistair Maydon (Dr Bradman)
David Hankinson proves more than up to the mark in his well-judged portrayal of the hapless writer Charles Condomine who seeks the dubious skills of an eccentric clairvoyant and medium (Madame Arcati) to provide some background for his next book.
However, things go wrong during a seance in the Condomines' sitting room when the ghost of Charles's deceased wife materialises from 'the other side'.
At a fringe production of Macbeth a while back, a man sitting next to me told his friend how he "longed to see a proper set" in small-scale productions (which are often devoid of scenery).
I think that gentleman would have appreciated Jude Chalk's admirable design efforts here which describe in satisfying detail the Condomines' sitting room which even sports the lovely touch of an old-style tiled fireplace.
Without giving too much away, the set requires some hidden features, which here are carefully engineered into the design and work with ample effectiveness come the closing moments.
Given the eccentric nature of the character, Madame Arcati provides actors with a gift of a role which sometimes leads to excess, especially during the seance scene.
Alison Liney applies restraint, but nevertheless impresses with her domineering persona and obvious charisma.
Anna Fiorentini is highly impressive as Ruth, who has to suffer what seem to be insults from her husband when he is addressing the ghost that she can't see.
There's commendable support from Alistair Maydon and Louisa Shindle as the Bradmans, and Sophie King is cooly petulant and suitably ethereal as Elvira.
Myriam Laurent completes the able ensemble as Edith the maid, who has to fight against her compulsion to rush around the house undertaking her duties and ultimately is centrepiece in the solution to her master's ghostly problems.
Dan Usztan opts for a pretty safe and risk-free directorial approach but there's nonetheless plenty to admire across all departments in his polished and well-executed production.
So much so that, even given my reservations about the play's comic nature, I found myself laughing out loud fairly frequently, especially in the more humorous second half, and drifting into the enjoyable state of being wholly absorbed.
The intimate nature of the venue certainly works its own kind of ethereal magic in this show's favour, but the production is astutely polished and well-delivered, providing an entertaining evening's theatre in spite of the drawbacks in the play itself.
Links and related content
ActDrop listing for Tower Theatre
Our show listing for Blithe Spirit
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