The continuing popularity of Blithe Spirit, boosted by last year's Noël Coward centenary, means that even a reviewer like me with a mere decade on the job has a bulging portfolio of Madame Arcatis to compare and contrast. Ellen Sheean in the Glasgow Citizens' production earlier this autumn opted for the brisk yet daffy Margaret Rutherfordesque path which tends to produce the best Arcatis, whereas on their respective outings a few years ago Dora Bryan and (without Bryan's excuse of being a late substitution) Fenella Fielding concentrated more on getting the words out in the right order. In David Giles's production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Thelma Barlow is a frilly, feathery, floaty kind of a medium, whose serene smile never falters as she reproves those who rib her or even as, on the press night, her string of beads gets accidentally tangled in some of the vegetation she waves around the haunted Condomine house.
Barlow's Arcati does not look or behave, in the words of one of Charles Condomine's ethereal wives, as if she might "materialise a hockey team", but her prim enthusiasm is nevertheless winning as, in her orange curls and even more orange gown, she bunny-hops around the room to build up the ectoplasmic charge and dowses with a bunch of ikebana bulrushes. Terrence Hardiman is now forever associated with children's television drama series The Demon Headmaster, and so it is hard not to think him a mite on the forbidding side for the essentially frivolous novelist Charles; Hardiman reacts to the conjuration of his first wife's shade with a more substantial kind of exasperation than the crisp, brittle variety on which Cowardian comedy thrives, and when second wife Ruth (Elizabeth Counsell) accuses Charles of looking like a wounded spaniel, Hardiman seems more a surly Great Dane. As the white-faced, grey-gowned Elvira (deceased), Liz Crowther is excellent; although her voice seems on the thin side in the initial stages, Crowther rapidly builds up a character who is first genuinely bemused and concerned about why she has materialised to her remarried husband, and then given to beautifully matter-of-fact sardonicisms and gorgeous little-girl tantrums when her schemes go awry.
Kenneth Mellor's set is furnished in a slightly disconcerting period-Ikea style, and Mic Pool's sound design includes discreet echo for Elvira's lines and wonderfully reverberant thumps during the séances. Even though Barlow is vestigially shadowed by a ghost of her own – that of Coronation Street's Mavis Riley – Giles's production is distinctly one of the blither Spirits in my growing collection.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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