Salisbury Playhouse
Opened 21 January, 1999

The Noël Coward centenary year has begun. The great man was born in December 1899, so we may be sure that Gareth Armstrong's production at Salisbury is merely the first of dozens of dramatic commemorations, both professional and amateur, in the months to come. Unfortunately, this Blithe Spirit gets the celebrations off to an undistinguished start.

Robin Kermode is not really monstrous enough as the self-regarding author Charles Condomine; Kermode makes all the right moves and noises, but is simply too pleasant for his bark to be convincing. Celia Nelson is agreeably brittle and brisk as his second wife Ruth but, despite some textual justification, it is unusual to see a Ruth noticeably older than Elvira, the ghostly first wife who returns to wreak havoc on the Condomine household. Mairéad Carty's Elvira is almost an ingénue; this makes her high-spirited antics seem plausibly kittenish (as when Elvira, normally invisible and inaudible to all but Charles, throws a decorative shawl over her head and all but "whoo-whoo"s at Ruth), but robs her more malicious actions of a deeper foundation.

Fenella Fielding would seem to have been an inspired choice of casting as the psychic Madame Arcati, but the concept turns out to be rather more admirable than the execution. The part as written is an adroit combination of stereotype and subversion, but Fielding, her hair laterally exuberant (like the foliage of a tree that has grown for years on a windy mountainside) plays consistently to type. She opts for floridity rather than vigour, gesticulating, moving in a late-middle-aged sashay and relishing every phrase; unfortunately again, on the evening I attended at least, she could not instantly remember every phrase.

Russell Craig and Kate Hawley's round, slightly distorted set (looking rather as if seen through one of those little snowstorm globes, or Madame Arcati's crystal ball) draws applause as the curtain rises, but Jeanine Davies adds unnecessary amounts of ethereal blue light from beneath the central playing area. A number of nice peripheral touches are evident: after Ruth's second-act death, Charles is next seen wearing a mourning band on each arm; later, following the successful exorcism of both ghostly spouses, the appearance of a large Ace of Spades playing card suggests the ultimate dénouement only hinted at in the stage play but made explicit in David Lean's film version. All in all, though, this is unlikely to prove to be one of the year's better Coward productions.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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