Noël Coward had a wickedly clever mind, and in the case of Blithe Spirit, a rather black sense of humour. Especially seeing as he presented this play, about a medium who brings a first wife back to haunt a second marriage, in the midst of the London Blitz, when death was a more serious concern for the general population than it might usually be.
Charles is the name of the husband to two in question, and he's a novelist writing a book about the occult and spiritualism. Thus he invites Madame Arcati, a medium, to hold a séance at the home he shares with his second wife, Ruth. Expecting the medium to perform a few parlour tricks, Charles is very surprised when he discovers that his first wife Elvira has been summoned – though he's the only one who can see her initially. Until Elvira makes it quite clear that she's there by causing as much trouble as she can for his second marriage.
If you thought at first that Coward's themes were in poor taste then I should mention that people apparently found comfort in the clever comic dialogue of the story and solace in the idea that some folks were continuing their high spirited antics beyond the grave. In any case the play was good enough to run for almost 2,000 performances – even while there was a war on.
But enough delving into the past, the current production, on at the Apollo, stars Alison Steadman as Madame Arcati, Robert Bathurst as Charles, Hermione Norris as Ruth and Ruthie Henshall as Elvira.
Alison Steadman is worth seeing in anything. Her timing is impeccable and her characterisation of the eccentric medium is over the top, but so consistently over the top that it works. And you'll get lots of laughs out of her.
But it's the dialogue, as with all Coward's plays, that's the star here, and the real reason to book tickets for Blithe Spirit. Snappy and spirited always.