Noel Coward’s frivolous comedy about death, Blithe Spirit, was first performed in 1941 during some of the worst of London’s blitz when the threat of a sudden violent death was a real and present reality. Some at the time, such as Graham Greene, thought Coward’s blithe approach to death was unseemly, but surely there was never a more apt time for a comedy to portray death as a gateway to a gay and carefree afterlife. However, today death is a more sanitised affair, or at least for most of us hopefully it will be, and so the light relief that comes from imagining the dearly departed filling in forms in heaven in order to get clearance to revisit family members who have unknowingly beckoned them loses some of it’s comforting appeal.
The story concern’s Charles Condomine, an author who for research purposes invites the psychic Madame Arcati to hold a séance in his house. After the séance he is alarmed to discover that his deceased ex-wife ‘Elvira’ has now taken up residence in his home. Needless to say his present wife ‘’Ruth’ is non-to pleased about Elvira’s presence. A desperate Charles, once again calls upon Madam Arcati to help send these spirits back to the other side, a place the spirits themselves are desperate to reach.
The play reveals Coward’s own view of women and the state of matrimony. Charles is obviously dominated by the women in his life - his first wife is a sexual prowess, who users her wiles to manipulate him mercilessly, whilst Ruth, is second wife, is cold and rather stern. For Charles marriage is a trap he increasingly wishes to break free from so that like a blithe spirit himself he can travel the world unrestricted. Is this how Coward saw women - bickering demanding creatures who exchange spontaneity for stale monotony?
Penelope Keith is superb as the eccentric medium Madam Arcati, dressed in a turban and flowing robes she frolics around the room in giddy abandonment. All jolly hockey sticks, Madam Arcati proclaims again and again “Away with melancholy.” Like a mad hatter she unknowingly helps orchestrate proceedings at this mad dinner party. However, as delightful as she is, this is a comic performance we now associate with Penelope Keith -slightly snotty, a bit bossy and endearingly eccentric - it all seems overly familiar.
Aden Gillett never quite hits the right notes as Charles Condomine, he always remains slightly detached from the two women in his life, one wonders why he chose to marry in the first place, and why these women are smitten by this tedious man seems slightly mysterious. Charles should be the hub around which the women spin, not the barrier they always have to climb over to reach the audience.
Joanna Riding and Amanda Drew both perform much better, and are the two blithely spirits that keep us amused. Joanna Riding’s Ruth, with a stern, haggard voice grows increasingly petulant, and Amanda Drew’s Elvira, more supercilious. When these two characters finally meet the comic sparks fly as their exchanges become more rancorous.
Director Thea Sharrock’s revival moves quickly from one scene to the next, making it impossible to grow bored, never the less my spirit was no more blithe after watching the show than it was before.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Leaves me quite unamused." IAN JOHNS for THE TIMES says, "A beautifully structured comedy." LYN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "Superb revival."