The Theatreguide.London Review
Apollo Theatre Spring 2011
Private Lives has its fans, but Blithe Spirit may well be Noel Coward's most perfect comedy, which is to say that it is in the very top rank of all comedies ever.
And Thea Sharrock's new production captures all its hilarity, style and charm, making this one of the most absolutely guaranteed good nights out in London.
Coward combines in this play a great comic premise, loads of his signature dry wit, three glamorous central roles and one foolproof opportunity for a scene-stealing character actress.
Even if one or another of those factors were weak the show would still work; when they're all fully afire, it's sheer ecstasy.
A man (rich, handsome, stylish and witty, of course) whose first wife died is happily remarried when they decide, for fun, to have a local spiritualist conduct a sťance in their home. She accidentally raises the beautiful ghost of wife #1, visible and audible only to her husband and us.
After an initial shock, the man begins actually to enjoy his semi-astral bigamy, but the living wife is determined to banish her invisible rival, as difficult as that proves.
And through all this the women are beautifully gowned, the man is impeccably groomed, and Cowardian wit flows effortlessly from all.
Of course it's a fable, and of course it's terribly fragile, so that any misstep in its smooth operation and absolute confidence of delivery could lead to collapse.
But director Sharrock keeps the bubble afloat beautifully, guiding her cast to exactly the level of perfect pacing and seemingly effortless ease that draws us in and holds us happily in the play's confident grasp.
As Charles, Robert Bathurst looks good in a lounge suit, which is half the job, and moves smoothly from laid-back elegance to panic and back.
He also knows the secret to delivering Coward's jokes, which is not to push them, but just let them hang there in the air as if the character - and the actor - didn't have to strain at all to think of them.
Ruthie Henshall embodies the kittenish sexiness of the ghostly Elvira, making it perfectly clear why even in incorporeal form the woman could be both exasperating and irresistible.
The role of Ruth, wife #2, can be a thankless one, little more than straight man and feed to the others. But Hermione Norris finds all the iron in the woman as she asserts her marital territorial rights, making her more of a real competitor to her ghostly rival and a more interesting and comic character.
The scene-stealing role is Madame Arcati, the medium, since it gives the actress lots of opportunity to flounce around, make funny noises, go into trances and pause to ask for another martini or cucumber sandwich.
Alison Steadman delivers full measure, taking over the stage and constantly surprising with her range of comic shtick. But unlike some Arcatis, Steadman does not warp the play.
She doesn't so completely outshine everyone else that we lose interest when she's not around.
If there is such a thing as a generous star turn, taking her due but then giving the play back to her fellow actors, this is it.
There's well-earned applause as well for Jodie Taibi, doing a nice job of mini-scene-stealing as a frazzled maid, and respect to Bo Poraj and Charlotte Thornton, who are in the thankless roles of straight men and do their jobs honourably.
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