Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward
Shubert Theatre, New York City
While waiting for curtain-up at the Shubert Theatre in New York, the nice American lady next to me asked, “So, what is this? A drama? A comedy?” Envious of her ignorance of the ghostly aspect of this well-known play, I summed it up as “a comedy about middle-aged love and second marriages. With a twist.”
Noël Coward himself described his play as “an improbable farce” and it is this, combined with its biting wit and pre-war period setting, that has contributed to its enduring popularity on the professional and amateur stage. The Broadway version, which closed in July, featured Angela Lansbury in a Tony-winning performance, prancing and dancing around the stage as the Martini-guzzling Madame Arcati with more delightful energy than your average 83-year-old.
Michael Blakemore’s production had more vim than some that have been on the London stage. Each scene change was accompanied by recordings of Noël Coward tunes beautifully sung by Christine Ebersole, who plays the languorously catty blithe spirit, Elvira, back to haunt her remarried husband, Charles Condomine. Rupert Everett burnished this role with his typical elegance and style – he seems to have been born to play the part.
The role of second wife Ruth can sometimes be crowded out by the other leads, but Jayne Atkinson brought out the dry wit and brisk energy of a woman moving from patronising tolerance of her husband’s behaviour to outright but polite fury.
Broadway restored my faith in the play – fondly remembered from the film version with Rex Harrison – and reminds me why this comedy is so often revived. In the UK, recent months have seen professional productions in Newbury and Oldham (touring to Harrogate and Basingstoke) while Blithe Spirit is back to haunt Manchester’s Royal Exchange in December.
Amateur Stage magazine