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Spirited Keith steals the show with a masterly turn



Review by David Munro

BLITHE Spirit was written in 1941, at the beginning of the Second World War.

Produced in 1942, it ran for 1,997 performances – the record for a straight play at that time.

It was successfully filmed with two of the original cast, Kay Hammond and Margaret Rutherford, which preserved for posterity the latter’s performance as Madame Arcati, a performance against which, sadly, all subsequent Madame Arcati’s have been judged.

A not too successful musical version, High Spirits, appeared on Broadway in 1964, with Beatrice Lillie as Madame Arcati and, later in London, with Cicely Courtneidge in the same role.

There have been countless revivals and, over the years, Madame Arcati has become, if not the leading character, at least the starring role.

She is a medium asked by Charles Condomine, an author, to hold a séance so he can use the experience in a book he is writing.

This results in the ghostly return of his first wife, Elvira, (whom only he and the audience can see) who, through her machinations, causes the death of his current wife, Ruth, who then joins Elvira in tormenting him.

Madame Arcati is ultimately instrumental in banishing them both back from whence they came.

As in any play by Coward, most of the humour arises out of the dialogue and situations which, in this instance, is brought about by the ghostly Elvira and her schemes to get Charles to join her in the other world, which manifests itself in psychic phenomena and the attempts by Ruth and Madame Arcati to cope with the situation.

While she is peripheral to the marital triangle of Charles and his two wives, Madame Arcati has a role in the unravelling of the plot and this results in several very funny scenes where Coward pokes rather cruel fun at mediums and their paraphernalia.

Margaret Rutherford seemed oblivious of the underlying cynicism of Coward’s idea of the part and played her as a sincere, gushing 'jolly hockey sticks' school-marm type and, by so doing, dominated the scenes in which she appeared and made the role her own.

Subsequent Madame Arcatis have tried to get away from this image created by Margaret Rutherford with varying amounts of success , but apart from Dora Bryan’s down to earth country shop girl medium, the spirit of Miss Rutherford hangs over all their personifications.

In the current revival at Richmond, Madame Arcati is played by Penelope Keith, who firmly casts off the spectre of Miss Rutherford and returns Madame Arcati to the character delineated by Coward as “…a striking woman dressed not too extravagantly, but with a decided bias toward the barbaric…”

She is imperious and, at the same time, flamboyant in her gestures and attitudes.

A woman confident in her sincere belief in the supernatural which she is happy to share with others but at the same time aware of her limitations.

She gives full value to the Coward lines, making the character funny but at the same time strangely vulnerable, so that her outburst at finding she was 'set up' by the Condomines is pathetic and believable.

This is a great performance and one I doubt whether I shall see bettered.

I wish I could say the same for the rest of the cast.

Aden Gillett’s Charles Condomine didn’t convince me that he was interested in either of his wives, nor that he was in the slightest bit concerned about the situation he found himself in. An interesting reading of the part, but not the one I imagine Coward intended.

Ruth is a thankless part. She has to appear in love with her husband but at the same time be a shrill shrew when she misunderstands the situation he is in.

Joanna Riding did the best she could with the part, but I felt she would have been better cast as Elvira, as her cool sophistication seemed at odds with the character she was supposed to portray.

Amanda Drew’s Elvira was without doubt one of the worst performances I have ever seen of the part.

She lacked the sophistication and cool charm the part requires; her movements were lumpen rather than ethereal, although I will agree that she was not helped by her costume, which consisted of a dressing gown and pyjamas which gave the impression she had escaped from the local loony bin rather than having 'crossed over'.

She read rather than delivered her lines and the overall impression was of the Head Girl who got the part in the end of term play because of her status rather than her skills.

Michelle Terry was extremely funny as the gawky maid, Edith. I note from the programme she understudies Elvira and I wish I could have seen her play the part as, if her performance was as adept as the one she gave as Edith, then it would be well worth seeing.

As Dr and Mrs Bradman, the neighbours called in to assist at the séance, Derek Hutchinson and Barbara Kirby fleshed out their parts as far as they were able in the time allotted them and merited the applause they received at the end.

But, at the end of it all, it was Penelope Keith’s evening and she well lived up to her star billing.

I would happily go back and see her again and I am only sorry that she did not have a supporting cast worthy of her performance.

Despite that I can honestly say of her – Hail to thee Blithe Spirit a disappointment thou never wert !

Blithe Spirit, by Noel Coward. Directed by Thea Sharrock; Designer, Simon Higlett; Lighting, Peter Mumfor; Sound, Gareth Fry.
CAST: Penelope Keith; Aden Gillett; Joanna Riding; Amanda Drew; Michelle Terry; Derek Hutchinson; Barbara Kirby.
Presented by Duncan C. Weldon for Triumph Productions and Theatre Royal Bath Productions.
Richmond Theatre, The Green, Richmond, TW9 1QJ.
Mon, September 27 – Sat, October
2; Evenings: 7.45pm; Matinees: Wed & Sat – 2.30pm.
Box Office: 020 8940 0088.

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