CADOS’ latest production, a triumphant revival of ‘Blithe Spirit’, Noel Coward’s darkly comic exploration of the power of ghosts and the pitfalls of love and marriage second time around, was deservedly packing them in at the Little Theatre all last week.
The play, written in 1941 and first performed at the Manchester Opera House before a record-breaking run in London’s West End, concerns socialite and novelist Charles Condomine and his second wife Ruth who invite eccentric medium and clairvoyant Madame Arcati to their house to conduct a séance in the hope of gathering material about the occult for Charles’ next book.
The plan backfires when, as a result of the séance, Madame Arcati causes Charles’ deceased first wife Elvira to materialise, though crucially only he can see her.
This leads to much amusing cross-talk as Ruth assumes her husband is addressing her when in fact he is speaking to the ghost of his first wife.
Elvira proceeds to make her awkward ‘presence’ felt by continual attempts to denigrate Ruth and disrupt the marriage.
She even attempts to kill Charles by sabotaging his car, so that he will rejoin her in the after-life, but it is Ruth who inadvertently drives off to her doom.
Efforts by Charles to exorcise the ghosts with the aid of Madame Arcati and further séances result only in Ruth also now materialising and redoubling his ongoing discomfiture.
For Andrew Kidd, deputising for the sadly unwell Wyn Tootell, it is a directorial debut of which to be proud.
This is a taut, very professional production with ghostly stage-business adeptly conducted and memorable moments of theatrical surprise.
It is enhanced by a sumptuous drawing-room set-design by Mike and Sue Taylor, dramatic lighting by Paul Carr and an atmospheric, often amusing background sound-track of the period (e.g. ‘There may be trouble ahead…’!) between scenes.
Producer Eleanor Matthews has assembled a very strong cast. Ryan Norse (Charles) anchors the action impressively and displays fine timing in delivering Coward’s sardonically witty lines.
The developing tension between himself and the feisty, strong-willed Ruth, confidently played by Sara Worswick, is splendidly conveyed.
Katie Eccles brings all the required eccentricity and histrionics to the role of the mystic Madame Arcati, arriving as she does on her psychical bicycle in a jowl-quivering fluster.
This pivotal role was first played by the legendary Margaret Rutherford and subsequently by (among other luminaries) Penelope Keith.
There is something of both in an assured performance here.
The sudden materialisation on stage of the ghostly figures of Elvira and later Ruth is deftly achieved, the initial appearance by Elvira providing a particularly arresting moment.
Melissa Aston-Munslow endows the role with a delicious and scene-stealing seductiveness, her sultry voice and foxy, sinuous movements around the stage greatly adding to her mystique – and mischievous intent!
Marvellously scathing too are the exchanges between Charles and Elvira as they rake over an unhappy honeymoon in Budleigh Salterton, her illicit assignations with a former beau in a punt and her admitted seduction by a certain Captain Bracegirdle on the moors.
Joe Simmons and Jayne Worth as posh neighbours Dr. and Mrs Bradman and Liz Stevenson as the bustling but edgy maid Edith provide solid support to the outstanding quartet of principals.
A tendency by the actresses in the opening scene to rush their lines was happily soon eliminated and the whole cast are to be congratulated on their polished diction and upper-class accents.
As the play closes, with Charles accepting Madame Arcati’s exhortation to go to a faraway place in search of true peace, the ghosts (we assume) are still at work trashing the drawing-room and causing various fixtures and fittings to fall dramatically from their place. It seems all part of Coward’s desire to suggest that the dead are somehow always with us, whether we want them to be or not. Food for thought after a thoroughly satisfying evening’s entertainment.