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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Blithe Spirit
American television 1956 and YouTube   Autumn 2021

The London theatre has seen two less-than-ideal productions of Noel Coward's comic masterpiece in recent years, so it is a particular delight to search YouTube's vaults and find this almost perfect version.

(Quick reminder: widower remarries happily, but then the ghost of his first wife appears. Only he and we can see her, and she's bent on mischief.)

Coward himself directed this 1956 production for American television (and skilfully edited it down to broadcast length), and he assembled an ideal cast.

All his plays were originally written for him to star in, and he plays Charles, the astral bigamist, as – well, as if the role were written for him.

One of his signature talents as a performer was to speak a witty line without unnecessarily underlining it and yet make sure it registered, if sometimes only a second later when we caught up with him.

Within the very first scene he simultaneously eulogises and dismisses his dead wife by saying she was 'morally untidy;' and a few moments later manages to insert a slight shudder into the description of some children's books 'full of highly conversational flora and fauna.'

As the ghostly Elvira, Lauren Bacall is appropriately beautiful (though lumbered with make-up that tries far too hard and unnecessarily to make her 'exotic'). And the actress brings her irrepressible air of intelligence and determination to a role that too many others have played as an irresponsible airhead.

The role of Ruth, the living wife, is a thankless one, giving the actress little to do but serve the play. But Claudette Colbert not only helps anchor the fantasy in something resembling solid reality, but invests the character with her own steely determination, making this Ruth more competition for Elvira than any other I've seen.

There is one more major character, Madame Arcati, the spiritualist whose séance raises Elvira. Always something of a guest-star cameo, the role virtually demands broad comic overacting.

There is one moment, just before the séance, where I've always suspected the stage direction read 'Mme Arcati now does something weird to indicate she's going into a trance,' and too many Arcatis have come a cropper trying desperately to be funny.

Here Mildred Natwick confounds expectations and steals the moment by limiting it to a brief and elegant little dance that is simultaneously comic and convincing.

Indeed, throughout the play Natwick and the others underplay moments we are too accustomed to seeing overacted by performers who don't have the playwright-director-star on hand to reassure them that the laughs are all there.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Blithe Spirit - US television 1956 - YouTube 2021