Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Pip Oliver as Ruth, Sean Mulkeen as Charles, Denise Phillips as Madame Arcati and Marion Chittenden as Mrs Bradman. Pictures: Emily White

Blithe Spirit

Highbury Theatre Centre


Successful novelist Charles Condomine is writing a book about a homicidal clairvoyant so, for a bit of background on jargon and tricks of the trade, what better than to invite the village psychic, the eccentric Madame Arcati around for a séance.

The only problem is that Madame Arcati with her table knocking, incantations and trances manages by some unworldly accident to conjure up Charles’ first and very dead wife Elvira as a very much alive walking, talking, apparition.

And while Madame Arcati might not be homicidal, Elvira, dead for seven years, certainly is and is determined to derail, and perhaps even kill off his new marriage.

As she is only seen and heard by Charles, his conversations and arguments with what appear to be blank walls leave current wife Ruth part baffled and part fuming as she finds herself in the midst of a three-way conversation where she only knows of just two participants.

Sean Mulkeen is a fine Charles, confident, urbane, successful although he speaks in a manner that makes you feel he is always perhaps a little on the defensive, while Pip Oliver gives us a strong Ruth, who, you suspect wears the real trousers in the house, as we see in the opening scene as she admonishes the servant, Edith, demurely played by Jennifer Godbehere, for moving too quickly. There is a little insecurity there, you suspect, as she seems to need reassurance that her relationship stands up to that of Charles and his late wife. She too is on her second marriage, but we never do find out what happened to her first husband.

Joining them for the séance are Dr Bradman and his wife played by Peter Cooley and Marion Chittenden. The good doctor is a sceptic and it shows while his wife is a strange mix, being both fascinated by the idea of a séance and falling about laughing at the very same idea - once Madame Arcati has gone of course.

She has a propensity for both talking and saying innocuous things in the wrong way so as to cause offence and Chittenden gives her a sort a happy outlook on life, with a constant smile and a nervous giggle.

sence 2

Mrs Bradman, Charles and Ruth are joined by Peter Cooley as Dr Bradman for a séance with Madame Arcati conjuring up spirits from the ether in the rear 

Then there is Madame Arcati herself played superbly by Denise Phillips. To say she is eccentric is rather like saying the Pope is probably Catholic. She is mad as a hatter, travelling everywhere by bicycle, wearing clothes that make her look like a cross between a fairground fortune teller and a Cossack - wearing permanent bicycle clips – and she talks up-market gibberish about ectoplasm, eccentrics, poltergeists and the like. She has a penchant for cucumber sandwiches, dry martinis and strict dietary requirements when intending to go into a trance.

Apart from that she is as normal as any off the wall eccentric. It is a lovely performance full of little comic touches to take Madame Arcati on to another plane of humour.

And then there is Elvira, pale faced, silver haired and dressed in a sort of funereal haute couture played with a detached and slightly peevish air by Eléna Serafinas. Although she is dead she still lays claim to Charles, resents Ruth and delights in causing trouble – so we all know it is not going to end well.

Sandra Haynes has directed with some deft touches and generates a pleasing pace on another fine Malcolm Robertshaw set. The ghostly moments also demand some inventive lighting from Andrew and Tom Birkbeck.

Noël Coward wrote this piece of ghostly whimsey at the height of the Blitz, premiering in Manchester in 1941 before a West End Run that broke the record of performances for a non-musical play.

He had wanted to write a ghost story for some time but the war and the inevitable deaths it brought made ghosts, particularly in a comedy, a delicate subject. So, Coward stripped it of emotion, relying on wit and dialogue in a story that would be heartless. As he put it: "You can't sympathise with any of them. If there was a heart it would be a sad story.”

And in that he succeeds. It might be a ghost story but is also a farce with characters you are not meant to really care about or become emotionally involved with, they are there merely so you can enjoy a witty, clever comedy.

There is a reason a play knocking on for 80 years old is still regularly performed, it is as fresh today as it was back in 1941 – good writing just doesn’t age.

It is a funny - laugh out loud at times - adroit comedy brought to life – literally in one case - by a fine cast with a guarantee of an entertaining evening. It's how the spirits move you. To 21-09-19,

Roger Clarke


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