Review: Blithe Spirit, York Theatre Royal

Crystal capers… Caroline Harker, Nichola McAullife and Andrew Hall in Blithe Spirit. Photographs: York Theatre Royal
16 May 2014 @ 11.30 am
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Crystal capers… Caroline Harker, Nichola McAullife and Andrew Hall in Blithe Spirit. Photographs: York Theatre Royal
Crystal capers… Caroline Harker, Nichola McAullife and Andrew Hall in Blithe Spirit. Photographs: Anthony Robling/ York Theatre Royal

Review: Blithe Spirit
Venue: York Theatre Royal, May 15, 2014

You know you’re in for a good night when the host gets out the cocktail shaker, his wife cranks up the gramophone and a Welsh woman in velvet robes starts beating the floor with a fistful of foxgloves.

Making a lively start to Noel Coward’s timeless tale of marriage after death, this beautifully choreographed scene also ensured the appreciative audience at York Theatre Royal knew from the off they were in for a spirited as well as spirit-fuelled evening.

Nichola McAuliffe, star of seven series of ITV’s Surgical Spirit and an Olivier Award-winning stage actress for her lead role in the RSC’s production of Kiss Me Kate, stole the show (and a plate of cucumber sandwiches) as marvellous Madame Arcati.

Her Welsh accent (she was obviously “the only medium in the village”) was faultless and added an extra dimension of amusement to her perfectly pitched, physically adept performance.

And this is how you conduct a seance. Obviously.
And this is how you conduct a seance. Obviously.

Caroline Harker, as second wife (and fiddle) Ruth, also showed impressive comedy chops – and a covetable wardrobe of period outfits – as she strode the stage, cigarette in hand, artfully parrying the pointed remarks and sharp jibes aimed at her by her charming but rather feckless husband, Charles, and Elvira, his slinky, drawling ghost of a first wife.

Her delivery was spot-on and the scenes seemed to noticeably sag a little whenever she left the room (usually by slamming a door or flouncing out of a French window).

Caroline’s excellent performance was watched by her sister, fellow actor Susannah Harker, accompanied by former Doctor Who, Paul McGann.

Louise Calf, as servant-with-a-secret Edith, Rachel Atkins, as bubbly but slightly bonkers doctor’s wife Mrs Bradman, and the doc himself, played by Theatre Royal old boy Blair Plant, all added their own twist to the comedy, giving their characters real warmth, even when the chill wind of death was wafting around them in the swish of Elvira’s flowing white satin gown.

And a rousing round of applause must also be given to designer Nigel Hook, who has created a fiendishly clever set full of surprises (if you don’t jump like a startled fawn in the second half then only Madame Arcati can rouse you).

While Damian Cruden’s production of this Coward classic is not without its faults – Andrew Hall and Amy Rockson just didn’t have the chemistry needed to make you believe Charles and Elvira’s passion would last beyond the grave (beyond teatime would be pushing it) – it’s still a very good evening in very good company that will leave you in the highest of spirits.