It is the curse of every actress playing Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit to suffer persistent and almost certainly unfavourable comparison to Margaret Rutherford. Tim Luscombe's Chichester production had originally engaged Maureen Lipman, whom one can imagine making the role her own; following Lipman's withdrawal due to illness (from which she is thankfully recovering), she has been replaced at relatively short notice by Dora Bryan, who might conversely be seen to belong to the role.
Bryan's amiable scattiness fits well into a portrayal of Mme Arcati which goes for twee rather than robust eccentricity – the loudest applause of the evening was for her comical ungirding of herself from her bicycling rig – but, whether through pressures of time or other factors, she is a little too scatty as regards lines; at times it almost seems as if her next phrase is to be whispered to her by a prompting spirit, or to be ingested along with the next cucumber sandwich.
Overall, Luscombe concentrates on maximising the entertainment of Coward's comedy rather than uncovering its hidden depths: when, for instance, Charles Condomine hints to his second wife Ruth that the sudden ghostly reappearance of his former spouse Elvira might make for rather a lot of fun, there is nary a hint of etheric troilism. Steven Pacey as Charles, and even more so Belinda Lang as Ruth, make a fine Cowardian couple, evenly matched in terms of verbal fencing skills but neither so poised as to turn matters into a formal exercise.
Twiggy Lawson as Elvira is a vision in diaphanous white who alternately sashays around the stage and clumps across it (this is one ghost whose footsteps are decidedly audible). She manages to combine a delightful and generally un-puckish playfulness with a paradoxically down-to-earth directness, conveying a greater breadth of character than the contentedly circumscribed Ruth and thus furnishing more reasons than simple physical attractiveness for the latter's jealousy.
The most enjoyable moments of the production are very enjoyable indeed: the cross-purposed exchange in Act One between Charles, Ruth and an Elvira visible and audible only to her husband; Mme Arcati's excited simpering when Elvira hands her anything; even the final-act scene-change when both Elvira and the now deceased Ruth "haunt" the stagehands. Illusions are discreetly but effectively designed by Paul Kieve, a man whose theatrical credits are almost as ubiquitous as rostrum cameraman Ken Morse's in television. At almost three hours (including two intervals), it ought to feel over-long, but things are kept simmering more than agreeably enough to dispel such cavils.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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