Sunday, 3 April 2011

Blithe Spirit ***

Blithe Spirit is the story of an ageing novelist looking for inside knowledge on the fantastical world of mediums and séances who learns far more than he ought to when his first wife is brought back from the other side and sets about dismantling his second marriage with blissful flippancy. The plot progression is typical of Noel Coward’s flights of fancy and is delightfully funny. Unlike a lot of Coward’s other work, the humour here doesn’t stem primarily from witty quips and subtle nicks but more from the inevitable mix-ups when the situation develops. His nimble mind is still clear in the occasional remark but it’s interesting to see a more physical style of comedy.
The set is plain and demure; a symphony in creams and pale greens. It provides a backdrop that’s easy to impress on and one that the characters go about doing straight away. The final destructive scene brings the best out of the previously subtle set, breaking the mould and shattering the calm with a sudden outburst of chaos, very impressive work from the backstage team.
From the first entrance the tone is set for the rest of the performance. Jodie Taibi’s cautious Edith enters with a tray and tries to place it on a table, a seemingly simple directive but one that ends up involving her doing the splits and other gymnastics. It’s a good start to a good performance from her as she rushes about at either warp speed or super slow motion providing not only good physical humour but also a varied pace to the action onstage.
The main entrance at the back of the stage allows for powerful entrances and first to exploit this is Hermione Norris. She bursts onto the scene and immediately takes control of the room, which she fights to maintain throughout the action of the play. Her character’s nagging and controlling nature is frustrating and it becomes more so from the initial probing questions to the full-blown arguments later on. She also loses herself in a few of her more fervent outbursts. A few of the cast fall victim to the occasional speedy rant that eventually falls on the wrong side of intelligible, which is upsetting given the base quality of Coward’s dialogue.

Robert Bathurst plays the character caught between the wife and the spirit place, two wives fighting over him and not on a level playing field, either. His efforts to promote good relations between them are ill fated from the start but are certainly very funny. The mix up as to who he’s talking to when he says something harsh doesn’t becomes less funny the more it’s used and retains its use throughout courtesy of good acting. He is another victim of the speedy rant syndrome but all in all he gave a very strong performance. His distraught Charles was very different to his affirmed Charles and his relationships with his wives were mature and well developed but more could have been done.
Alison Steadman is delightful. Taking the crazy old lady archetype to the extreme looks to be a great amount of fun for her as she prances about on stage lecturing on ectoplasm and poltergeists before dancing around like an animal with the occasional outburst before passing out on the sofa. She is clearly enjoying herself and her presence is one that seems to steady the ship somewhat. When she enters you somehow know the play is going to run smoothly, even with the chaotic nature of it all. Her character is well played; she strikes the balance between unbearable and hilarious so well that you are constantly undecided as to whether you like her or not: she’s realistic as a medium and you are perfectly willing to accept the existence of the ‘other side’ as a result of her performance alone.
Ruthie Henshall gives a fantastic performance. Given what is essentially a free reign to do whatever she wants on stage (largely because only one person knows she’s there) she personifies the title role of a ‘blithe spirit’. Carefree and flippant to the utmost she exploits her situation well and is very funny in doing so, playing the physical and verbal gags to the full and being tremendously good fun to watch. Her underlying sinister motives even seem gleeful, which is testament to the work she put into her exceedingly mischievous and deeply alluring character. I also liked the lighting effect of holding a blue spotlight on her the entirety of the time she was there, it succeeded in giving a more ethereal feel to her presence and supported her performance well.
This production is, simply put, jolly good fun. Death isn’t the most obvious source of comedy, particularly at the time of Blithe Spirit being written (1941) and the play gives a very harsh view of women as either barking mad, devious or plain unbearable and this seems wholly unfair but it is undeniably humorous. The cast do well to push the comedy to the fore but one cannot help but notice there’s other things going on that aren’t so jolly.
Sharrock’s direction appears solid but not nuanced. It’s broad brush strokes. There’s very little in the way of detail and more subtle edges. It’s all very funny and we’re laughing at what’s going on but we’re not really affected by it, we’re not invested in what is going on in the play, merely taking it all as it comes and laughing at the action. That may be the intention but the execution could do with some refinement.

Written by Noel Coward; Directed by Thea Sharrock; At the Apollo Theatre; Starring Jodie Taibi, Hermione Norris, Robert Bathurst, Bo Poraj, Charlotte Thornton, Alison Steadman, Ruthie Henshall; Runs from 02 March 11 - 18 June 11.

John Ord (02/04/2011)

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