Published in the Guardian
GHOSTS, as we all know, are pallid creatures. Not so in this revival of Noël Coward's supernatural comedy.
In contrast to the transparent drapes, pastel fittings and twinkling
chandeliers of Kenny Miller's 1940s set, Sally Reid's deceased Elvira is
a blood-red apparition whose fiery tresses and scarlet robes project
the image of a woman with more pulse and passion, dead or not, than any
of the delicate human beings she has returned to haunt.
At least, that's how it nearly works in Johnny McKnight's production.
It would be easier to see Elvira as a life force from beyond the grave
if the director hadn't relocated this most English of plays to a
Perthshire village. Coward's very particular brand of humour depends on
an emotional repression and, crucially, a restraint of expression that
translates awkwardly from the home counties to upper-class Scotland.
When subjected to the warm conversational delivery we get here, his
clipped, performative language, with its heavy irony and aphoristic wit,
is not as funny. Only Anne Lacey as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati
consistently strikes the right note of brittle indifference. Everyone
else is too human – although it's noticeable that the more intense the
marital rows, the more convincing they sound.
As a result, many of
the biggest laughs come from the theatrical interventions, whether that
be the pratfalls of Scarlett Mack's housemaid or the flamboyant mincing
of Billy Mack's Dr Breadman. They can be funny, but they're not really
what the play is about.
Lurking behind the silly story of dead
wives and seances is a more thoughtful study of passion, love and
commitment. It's one we see too little of. Sure, we get a cheery show
that jollies the audience along, but it's a ghost of what it could be.
© Mark Fisher 2013
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