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Theatre review: Blithe Spirit/Manchester Royal Exchange

Philip Hamer detects spirit lacking in this revival of Noel Coward's ghostly spoof

Published on December 21st 2009.


Theatre review: Blithe Spirit/Manchester Royal Exchange

It has now become traditional for the Royal Exchange Theatre to eschew the usual, cliched seasonal fare and present something rather different. This year’s choice of Noel Coward’s comedy Blithe Spirit directed by the talented Sarah Frankcom should be the perfect seasonal theatrical equivalent of a welcoming Kir Royale served with a slightly bitter amaretti biscuit.

s it invariably always does, this theatre scores well on the first two categories but is found wanting on the third. In fact at times Coward’s visual and verbal pyrotechnics were so inadequately served by the performers that tedium turned to boredom and eventually for me morphed into dullness.

The play hinges on successful novelist Charles Condomine’s invitation, as part of his research for his new book, to the eccentric medium Madame Arcati to create a séance at his home. She quickly renders chaos conjuring up all sorts of unsettling happenings, including his dead first wife, the alluring Elvira, whose presence upsets the second Mrs Condomine, Ruth.

Coward’s playwriting genius is hallmarked by a cleverness shot through with cruelty notably in his dialogue and is reminiscent of his contemporary Evelyn Waugh in the way he can dissect relationships in a few sentences with the accuracy of a skilled surgeon wielding a scalpel.

However this can make huge demands on actors. Coward himself usually played the male leads in his play’s premieres, and ensured that his close friend, Gertrude Lawrence, played the female leads. Blithe Spirit was something of a departure for Coward’s acid pen in that it admitted the fantastic into his mocking picture of the age.

No playwright caught more accurately the spirit of upper middle class life in 1930s and 1940s Britain but that period can be as difficult for a contemporary production to recreate as Shakespeare’s world or Chekov’s late 19th century Russia. Set, costumes and performances have to truly meld for the performance to succeed.

As it invariably always does, this theatre scores well on the first two categories but is found wanting on the third. In fact at times Coward’s visual and verbal pyrotechnics were so inadequately served by the performers that tedium turned to boredom and eventually for me morphed into dullness.

Much has been made of the casting of Suranne Jones, former Coronation Street female firebrand Karen MacDonald, as the second Mrs Condomine. But apart from displaying a passable cut glass accent Jones does nothing more impressive than any other non TV celebrity actress would have brought to the role. Playing opposite her as her husband, Milo Twomey shows little understanding of the complexity of the unique charm that personifies his character’s ability to woo his two wives. I suggest that he mugs up on Rex Harrison’s film performance in the role.

The role of Madame Arcati is arguably one of the last century’s great comic creations but once again Annette Badland so underplays that the huge potential for laughter in the medium’s eccentricity is never truly released. At times her interpretative quirks were more embarrassing than eccentric.

In the end I realised that this was something of a sour Kir Royale and a rather stale amaretti biscuit.

Till 23 January
Royal Exchange Theatre
Box Office 833 9833

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EarlyBirdDecember 21st 2009.

Thank the spirits I am not alone in my disappointment with this production. I found our leading man smug and our leading lady apparently unable to do more than deliver her lines and keep her accent on track. I wasn't so offended by Madame Arcati but Elvira needs to stop sticking her chin in the air like it's some sort of trophy. And the maid was maddening.

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