Thea Sharrock's name is all over That London's theatre at the moment, with three productions opening within weeks of each other. Her version of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit
started life at the Theatre Royal Bath and comes to Shaftesbury Avenue with a star cast of Alison Steadman as Madame Arcati, Hermione Norris as Ruth, Robert Bathurst as Charles and Ruthie Henshall as the title character of Elvira. Novelist Charles invites apparently phoney psychic Arcati to hold a séance at his house, as he secretly wishes to use her as research for a book. So he doesn't expect his first wife Elvira's ghost to show up and hang around the house, visible only to him.
The play was written as a bit of light fun to cheer everyone up during the Blitz and it is fluffy and entertaining enough. Despite the pedigree of the cast and director there's a lack of spark to the production, especially in the early stages. I may have to use the dreaded word "reverential," as lines that should have zippped by are sometimes mused over instead. Even the comic séance scene is amusing rather than big on belly laughs, although Steadman's rather brisk and businesslike Madame Arcati is better value later. Things do perk up once Henshall's perky ghost appears though and a bit more life (ironically) comes into the show. As the second wife, Hermione Norris seemed very underpowered to start with but after the interval was a lot more lively and brought her character's frustration at having to share her husband with a dead woman to amusing effect. I wish between them Sharrock and designer Hildegard Bechtler had found a way to have less of the action take place downstage - even with a seat upgrade, the Apollo's fucking awful sightlines make it hard work following the actors rather than the back of someone's head. I think I'm sounding a lot more negative about the production than I actually felt; it's fine, but only occasionally rises to more than that, which is a shame. Does anyone who reads this live in Bath? In which case, is everything at the Theatre Royal there as "safe" as the stuff they send to That London, or do they just not like us?
I went to this with my sister, who hadn't seen any Coward and didn't know what to expect but said she enjoyed it more than she thought she would. One thing about the production that did
get undiluted praise was Bechtler's dress designs for Norris and Henshall - penny_p
and the women sitting the other side of her were practically drooling over the frocks.Blithe Spirit
by Noël Coward is booking until the 18th of June at the Apollo Shaftesbury Avenue.