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