Noel Coward’s well known and much loved play about supernatural shenanigans in well-to-do 1940s rural England comes to the West End in this keenly anticipated revival.
The play revolves around Charles Condomine, who, in order to get material for a new novel, invites some friends and a supposed psychic medium, Madame Arcati, to a dinner party followed by a séance. All are sceptical of Madame Arcati’s powers, but she manages to unwittingly summon the ghost of Charles’ deceased first wife, Elvira. However, only Charles can see and hear her, much to the distress of his second wife, Ruth, and bewilderment of his guests. Muddled conversations, fraying patience, and floating vases ensue, not to mention sinister plots, otherworldly mischief, and dodgy magic spells.
Alison Steadman takes to the stage as eccentric Madame Arcati, whilst Olivier Award-nominated director Thea Sharrock takes the directorial helm. However, despite the established talent, the production is dreary and overdone.
The cast tend to overact and Coward’s characters are played like demented caricatures rather than real relatable people in a bizarre situation. Charles, played by Robert Bathurst, rattles through his lines in a highly-strung break-neck manner, often losing not only his diction but also the wit of Coward’s writing. Ruth, played by Hermione Norris, tends to be permanently grumpy rather than up-tight, and shouts at every opportunity, losing any sense of the character’s long-suffering cynicism and sarcasm. Elvira, played by Ruthie Henshall, gallops, grins, and gurns about the stage like some demented China doll. And Steadman’s Madame Arcati, who flaps, barks, growls, and manically gesticulates during the course of her ghoulish practices, is mildly amusing at best.
Sharrock’s direction is a big let down given her stunning work on Terrance Rattigan’s After the Dance which saw her nominated for Best Director at this year’s Olivier Awards. In her defence, there’s little room in Coward’s narrative for grand and innovative direction, but here the entire play is flat and lacking in any inspired nuances as she brings very few personal touches to the production, bar a slew of impressive special effects during the play’s finale.
All in all the production feels more like a pantomime than a high-end Theatreland show. Its only saving grace is Coward’s mordantly witty script. When the lines are given a chance to come through the overacting there are still some great laughs to be had at the playwright’s exquisite sense of the morbid and the absurd.
Coward fanatics may, however, find themselves disappointed with this production, especially those who have been fortunate to catch any of the revivals done by the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester (who set a fine example of how his plays can be staged hilariously well). But even the more casual theatregoer will struggle to find grace and charm in this exaggerated and over-blown production. With the cheapest seats not dipping below £20, there are better ways to spend money in the West End than on this unfortunate resurrection of a Coward classic.
Blithe Spirit plays at the Apollo Theatre, London, W1D 7ES, until 18 June 2011. Tickets are from £20-£65. To book tickets call 0844 482 9671 or visit www.nimaxtheatres.com.