BLITHE SPIRIT
Apollo Theatre, London W1
Opened 9 March, 2011
**

The minor though crucial character of Edith, the maid, in Blithe Spirit is a nervous, frantic creature, given to scuttling everywhere. When she first enters at curtain-up it is clear that she has been instructed to try to be more stately and adroit. So intent is she on placing the tray of cocktail requisites on the coffee table that, in order to get down to the necessary level, actor Jodie Taibi goes slowly into the splits. In itself, it is a brilliant comic moment, but alas it is also a herald of too much of what follows.
    
NoŽl Coward’s comedies deal predominantly with urbane, comfortable protagonists when urbanity and comfort are tested to their limits. We need to see these characters driven to their pitch of extremity, not naturally inclined to it or all but living there already. Robert Bathurst as novelist Charles Condomine delivers most of his lines at an Edith-like gallop: most un-suave. As his second wife Ruth, Hermione Norris (also Bathurst’s screen wife a decade ago in ITV’s comedy series Cold Feet) always has a little of the termagant in evidence; when, in Act Two, her remonstrations of the medium Madame Arcati reach a roar, there is no comic surprise of extraordinariness. As Arcati herself, Alison Steadman sails to the outer reaches of eccentricity and the shores of the grotesque, with a tendency to yip her first words or emphases at a high pitch.
    
Hildegarde Bechtler has designed a sumptuous Art Deco London apartment, which is a pity as the play is set in a country house outside a small village in Kent, the sort of place where Madame Arcati can detect “interesting vibrations”; Bechtler’s vision is certainly not the home of a man so staid that he honeymoons in Budleigh Salterton. (After Ruth’s second-act death, Bathurst’s Charles really ought to limit himself to a single black armband; two together look Mosleyite.) Ruthie Henshall as the ghost of Condomine’s first wife Elvira, inadvertently summoned when a sťance goes rather too well, is the only major player to hit the right kind of key; even her puckishness might be excessive but for her natural playful charm.
    
After her award-winning evocation of the same period with Terence Rattigan’s After The Dance at the National Theatre last year, director Thea Sharrock is simply overwrought here.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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