Review – Blithe Spirit, Apollo Theatre

Wednesday 9 March 2011

There’s nothing the Whingers like more than having the willies put up them.

With Ghost Stories under their belts and Ghost The Musical coming up in the outside lane the Whingers found themselves again taking stock of their relationship with the supernatural in the form of Noël Coward‘s Blithe Spirit.

And despite a cynical take on all things ectoplasmic Phil had a peculiar, nay spooky, experience at the Apollo Theatre. Only a few hours earlier he’d be musing not only about the last time he saw the play on stage (with “sock it to me!” Judy Carne as Elvira) but also about an old friend he’d lost touch with and hadn’t seen for many years. A dry, deeply cynical but solid fellow, definitely not prone to flights of fantasy, he had once told Phil a pretty convincing tale, witnessed by many others at the same moment, of seeing a ghost (a floating head if you please) in a Spanish monastery many years ago.* And there he was (the teller of the tale, not the ghost) standing in the bar at the interval of Monday’s preview, imbibing his own choice of spirits!

All very peculiar and unsettling. Call for Derek Acorah. Even better, call Shirley Ghostman!

But director Thea Sharrock had called upon Alison Steadman to give her Madame Arcati, the batty medium who accidentally unleashes the spirit of Charles Condomine’s (Robert Bathhurst) dead wife Elvira (Ruthie Henshall) at a seance.

Everything should have been neatly positioned for the kind of evening the Whingers yearn for. A solid classic comedy with (if you watch telly) a starry-ish cast (Bathhurst was in Downton Abbey, for heaven’s sake). What went so horribly wrong?

Sharrock, who made such a brilliant job of last year’s After the Dance has been putting herself about a bit recently with Plenty finishing at the Sheffield Crucible last week, Ruby Wax – Losing It playing at the Menier and Cause Célèbre about to open at the Old Vic. BS started at the Theatre Royal Bath in November and comes to London via various other tour dates. Has she been spreading herself too thinly? Perhaps she should float her own head round the door to see what’s going on at the Apollo.

The subtle touch applied to After the Dance is missing here. This is played heavy and broad with little coming much broader than Steadman’s slightly charmless Arcati, grunting and throwing herself around gamely to conjure up the deceased: in this case the audience remained resolutely dead, at least until the interval.

Each scene’s neatly constructed finale fell flat. The curtain descended at the end of one scene leaving the audience sitting in silence. Not a single palm was raised.

Hermione Norris as Ruth, Charles’ second wife, is the only one that really seems the part, looking as if she has stepped straight out of an H. M. Bateman cartoon. Overcoming early projection problems she all but stole the show and not just because she gets the lion’s share of the costume budget. Simon Cowell should pop into the Apollo for a lesson in how to carry off high-waisted trousers.

Bathurst occasionally conjures up the spirit of Richard Briers (a good thing) and Henshall displays a rictus grin and bare feet throughout. Andrew’s only opportunity to exhale finally arrived at her pink-slippered curtain call.

The Whingers party’s plan to sing Happy Birthday to Ruthie (it was her 44th) at the end were scuppered by their lack of enthusiasm for the whole show. All rather dispiriting.

Footnote

* If you’re still sceptical the Celebrity Paranormal Experiences website may change your mind.

Rating

Two out of Five: slightly corked or vinegary


13 Responses to “Review – Blithe Spirit, Apollo Theatre”

  1. Gari Says:

    Oh no, what a pity!

    I saw a production of the show at the Exchange in Manchester last year and it quickly became one of my favourite plays on the back of that… had been mooting the idea of going to see this production, but may now revise that plan😦

  2. Suzie Says:

    Where have you guys been? The past week or two have been boring without your reviews. Were you abducted by ghosts? Or by Charlie Sheen?

  3. Ali67 Says:

    A very unsatisfying review! You normally go into more detail….

  4. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    I thought la Steadman was at one point channelling the recently deceased Johnny Preston by going into the pseudo-Indian chant at the beginning of his 1960 biggie “Running Bear”.

  5. JohnnyFox Says:

    Hard to know where to point the blame – all the actors are assuredly competent and stage-experienced, so it’s not dumdown telly casting, (Dame) Alison is one of our finest and The Thea Sharrock is top directing totty, it’s not undercast or underfunded, so why does one of Coward’s most enduring comedies turn into this bag of aged shite only two years after Lansbury/Everett made gold of it on Broadway?

    It’s a mystery, and Coward never wrote those.

  6. Ali67 Says:

    Such a shame Lansbury didn’t make it over with her production..( though I heard that wasn’t a perfect production either)…

    Personally I’d have cast Ruthie and Hermoine the other way round…

  7. Natalie Mason Says:

    Such a shame!

    Love your blog! please look at my blog theatricalme.wordpress.com for london theatre news, exclusive interviews and more!

    thank you

  8. hotjohn Says:

    Angela Lansbury was quite remarkable in BS on Broadway, flinging herself across the stage and at her age. Her Madame Arcati was rather a carbon-copy of her Salome Otterbourne from Death On Nile, however.

    • JohnnyFox Says:

      and she was being fed the lines through earphones concealed by ginger telephone plaits.

      But even if she was Salome Otterbourne doing ‘Noises Off’ she was a thousand times funnier than Alison Steadman, and as for Rupert Everett it felt like the part he was born to play. But Christine Ebersole was every bit as clunky and flat-footed as Ruthie, plus old enough to be Charles’ mother rather than coquettish ex-wife.

  9. Cuthbert Says:

    I enjoyed this production more than I expected. Lansbury was great in NY, but I also liked Steadman’s performance. There’s traditionally alot of leeway given to actors who play Mme. Arcati, in terms of their pre-trance histrionics.

    I most particularly did not like Ruthie Henshall. Thought everyone else was pretty good, though.

  10. Rosemary Says:

    Perhaps the production took time to settle in. I saw it on April 14th and thoroughly enjoyed it. Alison Steadman was brilliant, both funny and sympathetic. Hermione Norris’s versatility as a character actress never ceases to amaze me. Her comic timing was flawless; she raised one of the biggest laughs of the evening without having to utter a word, and she and Robert Bathurst play superbly off one another.

    For me, the weakest performance came from Ruthie Henshall, who, I think, was miscast. She seemed to me very 2011 rather than 1941, and she was completely overshadowed the instant she and Norris were on stage together.

    Well worth seeing, though!


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