by Noel Coward
Bath Theatre Royal
Directed by Thea Sharrock, Starring Alison Steadman
10 November 2010
This is another of the Noel Coward revivals I’ve seen at Bath all on pre-London runs too. They always go to town on the set and costumes, and do excellent productions. Sometimes it’s a Bath Theatre Royal Production, sometimes Peter Hall Company, but they’re closely linked.
They have a knack of finding the right big names. They’ve done Private Lives three times(Kim Cattral 2010, Belinda Lang 2006, Greta Scaatchi 2005), and Present Laughter twice (Rick Mayall 2003, Simon Callow 2006). Blithe Spirit is also on its third outing, having been done with Dora Bryan in 1997 and Penelope Keith in 2004. So the chances are they’ll pull out Blithe Spirit again in a few years time, even if they won’t find anyone to better Alison Steadman.
The 2000s taste for reviving Coward and Rattigan is commercially sound. Theatres are always packed. Also, while we think nothing of presenting Shakespeare in any historical period that takes the director’s whim, Coward and Rattigan are steadfastly done as period pieces with obsessive attention to decor and costume. You don’t need to do anything with them, I suppose. The scripts remain witty, the style is part of it, and health and safety still allows actors to chain smoke, a necessity of all Coward dramas. The only time I thought anything new had been done with Coward was when Rick Mayall starred, one of the dozen best performances I’ve ever seen. Mayall out-camped Coward and put enough of himself into it to change the levels dramatically into broader comedy, and it was all the better for it.
I have some doubts about the Coward / Rattigan / Priestley triumvirate of writers of “well-made plays”. I studied drama in the sixties when all three were so far out of favour that the works now come to me for the first time (well, the first time I see another play). The kitchen sink school that was in favour then, now appears to be a series of ranting monologues. Osborne’s Look Back in Anger is one of the worst plays ever to make it to the professional stage. These three were all far better writers, even if Coward was able to knock out the likes of Private Lives and Blithe Spirit in five or six days, while chain-smoking Passing Clouds cigarettes, and still having time to get smashed daily on dry-as-a-bone martini cocktails. The programme notes say that Blithe Spirit was straight out of the typewriter in 1941 without any corrections or alterations needed. God help us if he’d had a word processor to allow him to refine without all the bother of retyping. It then ran for five years straight in London, aided by the theme of the afterlife made (comically) tangible at a point when so many people had lost loved ones.
Alison Steadman as Madame Arcati
I hadn’t seen it on stage before, but I had seen Margaret Rutherford’s interpretation in the film version at least twice. What’s memorable about the play is how Madame Arcati is done, with Alison Steadman taking her as a combination of Jolly Hockey Sticks schoolteacher with a touch of hippy enthusiasm for the occult. Her waving hands and dancing around in the background are hugely entertaining.
Robert Bathurst as Charles Condamine
The base plot is that the writer Charles Condomine (Robert Bathurst) is researching a new story and decides to have a seance for research purposes, inviting along the local doctor and wife. The assumption is that mediums are all frauds. Madame Arcati cycles the seven miles to perform the seance, and inadvertently conjures up the “blithe spirit”, Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Ruthie Henshall). The current wife, Ruth (Hermione Norris), is understandably not amused. Ruth’s constantly changing expensive costume marks the time shifts between the eight scenes (in three acts).
Ruthie Henshall as Elvira
What stood out for me was Elvira’s performance as the spirit. Barefoot and dressed in wispy grey, she has the elfin quality and lightness the play demands. She’s light, small and sexy, floating around creating mischief. Apparently, there have been great Elviras in the past who I’ve missed … reviews mention Amanda Drew, Joanna Lumley and Twiggy. It’s a wonderful role for an actress, full of possibilities. I wish I’d seen the others!
Elvira and Madame Arcati
It’s a polished, funny, professsional production that ticks all the right boxes. Unusually for Bath we were seated high up in the Grand (upper) Circle, and that strains both the neck and the ability of the actors to project. Coward demands a rapid clipped delivery that doesn’t carry well into the Gods, but it proved that Alison Steadman has the best projection in the cast by a great deal. Hermione Norris was particularly hard to hear.
But it took me back to last year, when I saw Bath’s equally polished Private Lives just weeks after Salisbury’s less-lavish, less-stellar production of the same play. However smooth the Bath version was, it was the Salisbury version that took the risks and had us laughing louder. There’s something just a little too slick inherent in … well, that triumvirate of Coward, Rattigan and Priestley. Is it the ageing audience that keeps them going by filling theatres to capacity? Both Bath and Salisbury have elderly audiences. Will there still be a demand in ten year’s time when they can’t stagger up the stairs, or hold their bladders for sixty minutes? Or twenty? There were several school parties in the audience, and the sixth formers upstairs loved every minute (aided by more acute hearing perhaps). Good theatre should create future audiences. Will those sixth formers hanker for lavish 1940s productions as adults?