Is there a West End stage large enough to hold Alison Steadman’s Madame Arcati? The Apollo tries hard but Steadman’s striding, shouting, growling, prowling medium almost makes it burst at the seams.
Of course, Noël Coward’s classic comedy gives her licence to do just this. Where would be the fun in a timid, introverted psychic? Steadman has to be big, and, whether arriving in a leather flying hat and goggles or crawling across the stage like a floundering badger, big she is.
In fact, though Steadman delivers the centrepiece performance, Coward’s drawing room comedy actually revolves around Robert Bathurst’s author Charles Condomine, his current wife Ruth (Hermione Norris) and the apparition of his first wife Elvira (Ruthie Henshall) who is inadvertently summoned at a séance.
Elvira’s arrival is the trigger for most of the humour in the piece. Charles can see and hear her, but Ruth can’t, which leads to all manner of cross-purpose conversations and mixed up meanings.
As the ghostly gathering continues, director Thea Sharrock ratchets up the hysteria levels, Norris’s vowel-elongating, severe Ruth moving from suave hostess to the picture of tension before hitting the heights of screaming harpiness, and Henshall’s grinning Elvira – dentistry must be good in the hereafter – descending from teasingly flirtatious to spoiled brat.
Though the wit of the central trio’s confused conversations should push the show along, it is the physical performances of two fringe characters that stick in the mind; Steadman’s shape-throwing, unpredictable Arcati and Jodie Taibi as the less than perfect, perpetually worried maid Edith, whose gurning physicality transforms the spectre of a role into something of flesh and blood.
Coward wrote the play with the hope of raising spirits during the Second World War. Times are certainly not as hard as they were then, but there is a definite need for laughter amid the doom and gloom of today’s economy. The sight of Steadman throwing everything she has at a character without boundaries must be enough to raise a smile in anyone this side of the afterlife.