THEATRE Blithe Spirit Chichester Festival Theatre

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The Independent Culture
Chichester is gambling on big female names this season. The Hollywood star Kathleen Turner will soon be launching a solo show about the egregious Tallulah Bankhead and a screen luminary of an earlier vintage, Leslie Caron, has just opened in Nocturne for Lovers, a play about the passionate relationship between Chopin and George Sand which, in certain circles, has been affectionately rechristened Chopin and Fucking.

Meanwhile, in Tim Luscombe's mainstage revival of Blithe Spirit, there's a name that is nearly twice as big as it was. Twiggy Lawson, the artist formerly known as Twiggy, takes on the role of Elvira, novelist Charles Condomine's deceased first wife who returns as a shade to plague his second marriage. Here, Chichester's policy comes badly unstuck. Twiggy is a likeable personality and that's part of the problem: with her unspiky spook at the helm, this Blithe Spirit has barely the ghost of a chance. It's often said that Coward's 1941 comedy cleverly reworks the situation in Private Lives: like Elyot and Amanda, Charles and Elvira are childish egotists who can live neither with nor without one another. But instead of divorce, it is death that has separated them, which gives Elvira the added allure and dangerousness of being, perhaps, a spectral manifestation of Charles's repressed desire.

To indicate self-amused vampishness, Twiggy has developed a very pronounced rolling-hipped walk, but she always looks as though she's diligently remembering to affect it and it seems to come about as naturally to her Elvira as pedalling round the stage on a monocycle would. In her pale, floaty gown with its ectoplasmic cuffs and in make-up that blanches those lovely sweet- natured features, she can certainly project ethereality. There's not, however, nearly enough flighty malevolence and lethal prankishness in this havoc-creating spirit. Her erotic pull on Steven Pacey's Charles is as weak as her vocal delivery, which manages to make Elvira's witty waspishness a sting-free zone. As she flounces around and drapes herself over the furniture, you never get the sense of someone reasserting proprietorial right.

All too resistible, this ghost fails to be sufficient competition for Belinda Lang, who is wonderfully barbed and angularly uptight as Ruth, the less exciting current spouse. Lang gives real snap to the lines. Convinced at first that her husband has gone mad, she ventures the thought that "Perhaps there's something pressing on your brain" with a provoking hint of bright hopefulness. Steven Pacey is at his best when both wives are dead. Wearing a black band on each arm, he demonstrates the depth of his grief by breaking into a little involuntary burst of the Charleston. The play eventually - perhaps a mite misogynistically - humours this wish for liberation from women. As the set spectacularly self-destructs through the joint agency of his former spouses, this merely demonstrates their final impotence over Charles who slips away from the mayhem. Again, it recalls Private Lives - only here, significantly, the hero absconds alone.

Pluckily replacing the indisposed Maureen Lipmann at very short notice, Dora Bryan as the eccentric spiritualist Mme Arcati is not yet, so to speak, an entirely happy medium. She's a natural for the part and her performance will doubtless gel as the run proceeds but, at the moment, she's groping for the lines. This damages the comic rhythm and makes a lengthy evening feel even longer. I laughed out loud only once and this was thanks to the programme. One of the photos from recent productions is captioned: "Phyllida Law Hedda Gabler by Alan Bennett". Now there's a show you'd move mountains to see.