Blithe Spirit, Apollo Shaftesbury, London<br/>The Tempest, Playhouse, Oxford<br/>Mogadishu, Lyric Hammersmith, London

No&#235;l Coward's celebrated repartee is elusive in this drawing-room tosh. But Shakespeare conjures up real magic

Reviewed,Kate Bassett
Sunday 13 March 2011 01:00 GMT

She's back. Charles Condomine's late first wife, Elvira, has returned as a ghost, gaily determined to disrupt his second marriage.

Dashed off by Noël Coward in 1941, Blithe Spirit is – according to the PR hype for Thea Sharrock's latest West End revival – an enduring comedy favourite with everyone.

Well, not with me. I must remember to run a mile the next time anyone tries to bring this drawing-room tosh back from the dead. Blithe Spirit's claim to "minor classic" status is shot to hell as Alison Steadman hams it up as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati.

This is surely the stuff of am-dram purgatory. Steadman bustles around, endlessly sniffing for ectoplasm and launching into unfunny, pseudo-tribal dances to work herself into a trance. I was glazing over before she was, alas. Her Arcati is a plummy, booming windbag as well.

Alternatively, you could be bored stiff by Ruthie Henshall's Elvira, whose impishness is merely lame. Robert Bathurst's Charles, meanwhile, going into eager-beaver mode, is peculiarly like Richard Briers in The Good Life, but with a penchant for velvet smoking jackets and paranormal bigamy.

The play definitely isn't Coward's best. His celebrated repartee has gone flat. Frustratingly, too, he hints that deep marital disappointments and mourning underlie Elvira's visitation, but he doesn't dare leave the shallows of light entertainment to explore these. One might have hoped this director would be more sensitive to booze-sodden and disappointed spouses after her poignant NT staging of Terence Rattigan's After the Dance. She's resting on her laurels with this unfinessed production.

A thousand times more riveting is the "rough magic" practised by the spirit-summoning magus, Prospero, in Cheek by Jowl's world-class, touring production of The Tempest. This is performed by the company's mellifluous Russian ensemble, with English surtitles.

Igor Yasulovich's haggard Prospero, an ousted ruler, sits on a milk crate in shirt and braces. He might be a washed-up crazy in a Siberian outpost, yet his brooding is ferociously intense. His lip twitches and when he blinks, lightning flashes. Doors in a white wall behind him burst open and we glimpse – as it were in his mind's eye – his usurper-brother and entourage being violently storm-tossed at sea, drenched and yelling.

In Declan Donnellan's startling and insightful staging, Prospero is also a patriarch dispensing tough love to his child, Miranda. Indeed, aggression and affection are inextricably entwined in every relationship here – political and personal – right down to the comic subplot with a camp Trinculo and butch Stephano.

Anya Khalilulina's Miranda is a tender yet feral adolescent, with a dark cloud of hair. Father and daughter veer between fits of face-slapping and soothing kisses. She is instantly wild about the shipwrecked beefcake, Prince Ferdinand, naively unaware that the rough-and-tumble which Prospero halts is nearly rape – the young man arrogantly assuming droit de seigneur until punitively restrained.

Nor is Ferdinand a fully reformed Prince Charming at the close, savagely grabbing his bride away when she has run back, howling, to hug the lowly simpleton Caliban. Donnellan's ending hovers, unsettlingly, between a pessimistic and optimistic view of human nature.

There's also wonderful music and witty humour, though the video projections are a bit fuzzy. The post- Soviet satire is a delight when Miranda's wedding masque is staged like an old-school Communist opera: the harvest goddess, Ceres, a collectivist peasant, and Prospero's manifold Ariels prancing as a chorus line of sickle-waving reapers. See this.

Finally, the teachers are struggling to maintain control in a London comprehensive school – a little patch of land, surrounded by a grim wire fence – in Vivienne Franzmann's debut play, Mogadishu (directed by Matthew Dunster and transferring from Manchester). The title presumably invites a loose comparison between Somalia and this multicultural establishment which might just degenerate into lawlessness and clan warfare.

A scuffle breaks out in the opening scene when an explosive bully, Jason, assaults a new immigrant pupil, Firat. When Julia Ford's Amanda – a staff member – dashes in to stop this, she herself gets hurt. Reporting the incident belatedly, she doesn't want Jason excluded from school, because he is an Afro-Caribbean with a troubled home life. Nonetheless, Amanda's volatile teenage daughter, Becky – also at the school – scorns such soft-touch liberalism.

Mogadishu is extremely impressive for a first play, with chilling moments, sharp twists, an ear for amusing slang, and some thought-provoking moral complexities. That said, the current trend for plays requiring very young performers can be problematic. Still, sterling work in the main.

'Blithe Spirit' (020-7492 1552) to 18 Jun; 'The Tempest' Nuffield Theatre, Southampton (023-8067 1771) 15 to 19 Mar, then Barbican, London (020-7638 8891) 9 to 16 Apr; 'Mogadishu' (0871 221 1722) to 2 Apr

Next Week:

Kate Bassett follows Terence Rattigan's Flare Path, revived by Trevor Nunn and with Sienna Miller

Theatre Choice

The RSC's splendidly rebuilt Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon gets off to a peculiarly slow start. Its spring season opens with two old productions. Still, David Farr's King Lear, with Greg Hicks, is well worth seeing (in rep until 2 Apr). In London's West End, Bruce Norris's razor-sharp US satire Clybourne Park, charting race relations over half a century, continues at Wyndham's (to 7 May).

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