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A CurtainUp London Review
Alison Steadman's Madame Arcati is a triumph. From her very first entrance after arriving on her bicycle sporting a Biggles type leather flying helmet and goggles and wearing a voluminous orange silk bag dress decorated with large and loud geometric black stripes, she gives a fruity impression of Conservative MP Anne Widdecome, blended with dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse and of course the original Arcati, Margaret Rutherford. Ostensibly her presence has been requested at this after dinner party by Charles (Robert Bathhurst) who is a novelist and is researching a mystery story about a homicidal medium.
The manifestation of Charles' dead and feisty wife Elvira (Ruthie Henshall) whom only Charles can see drives much of the comedy as Charles tells Elvira to shut up and his current wife Ruth (Hermione Norris) thinks Charles is telling her to shut up! Ruth gets increasingly grumpy and Charles revels in two women fighting over him. Elvira's designs to get Charles to join her in the afterlife have a delicious twist.
Thea Sharrock whose production of After the Dance was so well received has produced a rather heavy handed comedy here. Maybe the comic formula itself is too old hat or maybe this just isn't the richest of Noël Coward's comedies? However Madame Arcati's strangely choreographed medium is a hoot of slapstick posing as she goes into a trance, arms held high and curved above her head; the trouble with the play is when she is not onstage. Bathurst is a fairly typical Englishman of his day, stiff and chauvinist. Elvira on the other hand in Ruthie Henshall's hands is impish and annoying rather than ethereal but Hermione Norris's current wife seems uncomfortable and rather deflated. Only Jodie Taibi as Edith the maid, in a tiny cameo, rivals Steadman when she tries to put a tray on a coffee table while balancing on the floor doing the splits to avoid bending down.
Hildegarde Bechtler's set is pretty and in period with its pale green sofa and non matching green curtains. You'll learn why in the course of the play why the curtains are such a bad match. The staircase entrance is beautifully framed in delicate ironwork in this affluent home.
Blithe Spirit is sadly neither blithe nor spirited.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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