Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit is unapologetically a play for that public. It was mainstream before the word existed, becoming among the most successful shows that the West End and Broadway had ever seen when it was first produced in the 1940s. Even today, it is rarely far from view, as a concurrent West End production starring Angela Lansbury makes clear. In many ways the definition of the classic British farce, it features men sharing dry martinis and protracted anecdotes with women in ballgowns as they converge upon a comfortable Kent home populated by swells.
The story begins when novelist Charles Condomine (Andrew Hall) invites clairvoyant Madame Arcati (Nichola McAuliffe) to conduct a séance in his home, in a bid to gather material for his next book. Charles's idea backfires when the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (Amy Rockson), turns up and repeatedly attempts to disrupt his marriage to second wife Ruth (Caroline Harker), who cannot see or hear her. For the next two-and-a-half hours, key ingredients of the traditional British mad house - folly, clumsiness, accusations, stiff upper lips, and of course abundantly crossed wires - take shape alongside the plot's twists and turns.
One quirky element of the York Theatre Royal production, directed by Damian Cruden, is the use of a voiceover (by Blair Plant, who also plays Dr Bradman) to introduce each scene with Coward's stage directions. Yet for all the invention behind this witty touch, which the Master would surely himself have admired, the show somehow fails to produce the audience laughter it probably should. Granted, most things that may once have provoked uncontrollable fits of the giggles among the wartime public only get sporadic chuckles today. Still, more could have been made of the script's persistent humour.
That said, much of Coward's wisdom continues to pack a punch - "how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit?" being one particular gem that I'll be keeping between my ears for a while. And the cast are terrific, notably Rockson, who manages to be convincingly tormenting, flattering and insecure as the high-maintenance apparition that is Elvira. McAuliffe's Arcati as expected steals the show with her bombastic demeanour and bizarre rituals.
The time-honored British farce may never be the future of British theatre, and there's perhaps not much more juice to squeeze out of this 70-year-old play. But like a true classic, Blithe Spirit will rarely disappoint its audience. There are plenty of warm smiles as we are led out the theatre's exit and I find myself making a mental note of a play that is of its time - that phrase "of its time" very much underscored in my head.
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