“I’ll be loving you, always,” goes the Irving Berlin lyric that courses through “Blithe Spirit.” The words couldn’t be more appropriate to the sublime Thea Sharrock revival, which reminds us that, in the right hands, Noel Coward’s play is indeed one to love. Those who think they know the 1941 comedy are unlikely to have lately encountered a production quite so emotionally reverberant, while those new to the play have the added thrill of finding renewed vigor in material that might seem to belong to a bygone era. Much like the ghostly Elvira, “Blithe Spirit” has emerged from the shadows and, against the odds, looks and sounds smarter, funnier and more bruising than ever.
Indeed, the real surprise is that more stagings of this play haven’t gone all the way toward a flat-out deconstruction of one of the wittier dances with death in the English dramatic repertoire.
First seen as the closing production in the Peter Hall Company’s recent summer season at the Theater Royal, Bath, Sharrock’s approach would seem straightforward enough, with Penelope Keith’s no-nonsense Madame Arcati the cunning embodiment of a brisk production that means business and knows how to achieve its aims. But that’s to deny the intriguing resonances set in motion by a quartet of scrupulously judged performances (a quintet, really, including Michelle Terry’s deliciously manic maid Edith) that excavate the troubling minefield of eroticism and hysteria existing just beneath Coward’s epigrammatic, tight-lipped veneer.
By play’s end, the twice-bereaved Charles Condomine (Aden Gillett) may be celebrating a hard-won freedom. But how free, in truth, are any of us who exist in thrall to the sorts of passions that send much of Simon Higlett’s set crashing to the ground as the final curtain falls? In “Blithe Spirit,” levity is both a way of life and also a lie, as the characters learn to their cost. Not for nothing does Coward grant what Madame Arcati calls “an unhappy house” the final word.
Those fearful that Sharrock has merely turned a comic mainstay on its ear need not worry: This is nothing like the now-infamous 1999 “Hay Fever,” also at the Savoy, that garnered scarcely a single laugh on opening night. Smiles, some turning to guffaws, are there from the outset this time around, as Joanna Riding’s immaculately turned-out Ruth purrs orders at that most skittish of servants, Edith, while she and husband Charles await the arrival of Madame Arcati for a seanceorganized, we’re told, for observational purposes only. (Charles is prepping a novel, to be titled “To the Unseen.”)
No sooner has Keith’s Arcati bustled in, her available rationales for all experience at odds with the mayhem she helps unleash, before the “unseen” is summoned in the form of Amanda Drew’s silken phantasm of an Elvira, Charles’ first wife who has been dead for seven years — two years longer than they were married to begin with.
Drew, late a rising star at the Royal Shakespeare Company, has the sultry allure (and hair to match) of a young Stockard Channing; she makes an inspired sparring partner for Riding’s Ruth, who quite forgivably doesn’t take kindly to having roses thrown at her from beyond the grave.
Admirers of Riding’s Olivier Award-winning musical theater perfs may be simply amazed by the breadth of her achievement in a rare straight play turn, moving from implacable chic to the outright frenzy of a wife who won’t be easily displaced.
Love, says Madame Arcati, “is a strong psychic force,” and so it proves here, with Charles torn this way and that by the competing affections of two women that leave him perilously close to crack-up.
The effortlessly debonair Gillett has previously demonstrated a mastery of the Coward way, which is to insist on sincerity even when events threaten to get really silly. (Indeed, in professing his belief that the seemingly dotty Madame Arcati is “completely sincere,” Gillett’s Charles could well be speaking for Coward.)
Though Arcati must stalk the living room in order to test its vibrations, Charles ends up riven to the core by his awareness that a would-be experiment — the seance — in fact carries with it a huge human cost, as the past floods the present and threatens to overtake the future. (Coward’s temporal metaphysics in this play put one in mind of Priestley, among others.)
“They’re only ghost tears,” a weepy Elvira remarks early in the third act, but are they? Sharrock and her company land every laugh in a play that induces an indecent amount of pleasure while never letting us forget the extent to which “Blithe Spirit” comes marinated in pain.