After her revelatory revival of Terence Rattigan's "lost" inter-war play After the Dance at the National last year, director Thea Sharrock takes a good hard look at Noël Coward's 1941 ghoulish comedy, often interpreted as a diverting consolation for those who had lost loved ones in action.
While satirising the faddism and psycho-babble of gypsy mediums in the enduring character of Madame Arcati, Coward also explores the idea that the dead are always with us, whether we want them to be or not, and that relationships in the present are always coloured by the haunting past and its attention-seeking ghosts.
Although Sharrock's revival is intelligently cast, and played with style and assurance, especially by the Cold Feet couple Robert Bathurst and Hermione Norris as Charles and Ruth Condomine, the overall rhythm is not infallible, and the performance suffers in its three acts being chopped down the middle; Coward wrote comedy in sonata form, and you mess with it at your peril.
The Condomines are giving dinner to their neighbours in a smart house in Kent. Charles is a novelist researching a new book, to which end he's invited round Madame Arcati to instruct them all in the etiquette of séances and proof of contact ("One rap for Yes, two raps for No").
Arcati's imperishably associated, of course, with Margaret Rutherford in the film, arriving on her psychical bicycle in a flurry of vague, jowl-shaking eccentricity. Alison Steadman presents a totally different version, a comical bulldozer with cat-like sniffles and sudden jumps, barking yelps, and a habit of waving at people in a room as if they were at the other end of the garden.
She's blithely ignorant of her own absurdity, too, not only in getting the procedure hopelessly wrong – that is, right – so that Ruthie Henshall as Condomine's ex-wife materialises like Banquo's ghost, visible only to the guilty Charles; but also in giving emphatic weight to half-understood foreign phrases such as noblesse oblige, quien sabe and, best of all, when recalling the good old days when a spot of holy water could dispel any poltergeist, Ou sont les neiges d'antan? Although Steadman is in danger of playing at one speed and on one level, she delivers it all with such glee that you're always glad to see her return.
You can see something now of Harold Pinter's Old Times in this play, Condomine wrestling with the women he loved while they find common cause against him. And the sight of Bathurst sporting two black armbands in the third act leads to the deliciously bitchy exchange with Elvira about their unhappy honeymoon in Budleigh Salterton and her illicit expeditions with Guy Henderson in a punt and Captain Bracegirdle over the moors.
There's a surprisingly athletic maid from Jodie Taibi, oscillating between hectic scrambling and slow-motion dedication, but she starts by doing the splits, her top gag. She then subsides into being merely amusing as she careens around Hildegard Bechtler's handsome design of book-shelves and elegant furniture. The costumes, especially Hermione Norris's, are very good, too.
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