REVIEW: Blithe Spirit – Royal Exchange, Manchester

Whilst in Manchester I was looking around for something to fill the evenings and I decided to give Sarah Frankcom’s new production of Noel Coward’s 1941 play “Blithe Spirit” a whirl; playing at the Royal Exchange Theatre until 23rd January 2010.

I was very much aware that the (completely separate/independent) 2009 Broadway revival production had received several Tony nominations, and that Angela Lansbury (!!!) had even appeared as Madam Arcati in that version (herself winning a Tony), and so I felt spurred into booking a ticket without knowing too much about what I was booking to go see! (You’ll have to forgive me, I am not as into plays as I am musicals!).

For the similarly uninitiated, Blithe Spirit is a famous and largely comedic play written by Noel Coward, set in 1931, and in which Charles Condomine and his wife Ruth hire the services of the eccentric Madame Arcati, they think they’re in for an evening of high jinx rather than high spirits – but when the madcap mystic accidentally brings Charles’s ex-wife Elvira back from the beyond, it all starts to go bump in the night. As both women battle for his mortal soul, Charles finds himself wanted dead or alive.

It is a wonderfully classic story, the idea of one man, his current wife, and his deceased first wife all trying to live together, and in my opinion it really does highlight nicely the old forms of comedy and shows the foresight of playwriters such as Coward in devising comically charged situations in the way that we now readily create as the basis for sitcoms. Of course, there are a whole host of other themes explored by the play, but the overarching tone is one of comedy, and it is largely for those comedic elements the play has become known for.

The Royal Exchange itself is an intimate but beautiful performance space, with the stage in the round. One of the best performance spaces that I have come across I’d go so far as to say. I was sat on the front banquette, right in front of the gramophone (more on that shortly!). As you can see from the below picture, I was practically sat in the Condomine’s living room!

The production itself was very strong I felt, with great consideration put into staging the performance ‘in the round’.

The cast were absolutely phenomenal I thought! The main names drawing people in are ex-Corrie star Suranne Jones, (as Ruth) – don’t be put off, she’s amazing! – and the absolutely wonderful Annette Badland as the fantastically eccentric Madam Arcati. I had no idea that Badland was going to be in it and I think that I actually squealed slightly when she came into the room! Badland definitely excelled in the role, and her facial expressions, trances, one liners, obsession with ‘ectoplasmic manifestation’ and cucumber sandwiches had me rolling around on my banquette!

If you are going to see the production, you may wish to skip this paragraph…. at the end of the play, the ghosts violently destroy the house (another awesome feat by the tech team behind the show!), and the first thing that happens is that the gramophone lid violently flips up, catapulting a vase of flowers into the audience. Muggins here was sat by himself right in front of the gramophone, and I actually jumped out of my skin and screamed slightly when that happened LOL! What was worse was that, as this was the first thing to happen, EVERYONE was watching me, and especially so as it was in the round! I blushed so profusely, and was quick to run away at the end of the show ha!

All in all, this production is absolutely awesome and I cannot commend it highly enough, other than to say that it was, without doubt, the most enjoyable play that I have EVER seen!

The audience loved it, the critics love it, and the actors look as if they love appearing in it too.

The show was first staged in 1941 (incidentally, this was in Manchester), and it’s remarkable to think that, 70 years on, the play still holds up strong and continues to delight audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

With tickets for the Royal Exchange production starting from just £8.50, you’d be bonkers to miss taking up the chance of an intimate and highly enjoyable consultation with Madam Arcati and co!

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Production photos – taken by Jonathan Keenan

– click to enlarge

About Gari

Northern lad; living out in the Peak District and rediscovering life after having had a brain tumour.

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