When Noel Coward wrote this play I’m sure that he did not envision the performance that I saw tonight. This being said, the third piece of this season is by no means a disaster, in fact it has much to recommend it: primarily a beautiful script and some touches of comedic timing. These moments, however, of lightness, inspiration, or clarity, could not hide a performance in which so much was missed. The great shame of this play was that it was very close to being very good. It felt as though the actors had not worked out who their characters were, where the funny moments should occur, or how to tease out the nuances of the relationships. The humour in Coward is found in the situation, and so the characters must be believable. This unfortunately was not always the case, but let us put all this down to first night jitters and move on.
The play follows the problems encountered when Charles (Hugh Williams) and his wife Ruth, hold a séance performed by the mysterious and eccentric Madame Arcate. Despite the scepticism of the couple and their friends, Dr and Mrs Bradman, the séance releases the mischievous Elvira, Charles’ late wife, into the house. Hilarity should of course ensue, and does in part, but much more could have been made of such a good script. Dr Bradman showed no signs of scepticism, and so the conflict between he and Madame Arcate took place solely on the script. Unfortunately many other lines eluded this transition to a fully realised performance. These characters should have built to a climax, but unfortunately the explosives went off leaving them behind.
This is, perhaps, too harsh, some of the characterisations were very good in particular those of the two lead females, Ruth and Elvira (Flo Hapgood), both of whom brought wit and charm to a piece which should not have dragged. In Hugh Williams, the person about whom this play rotates, I can see a fine actor desperately constrained by a lack of direction. His character trajectory was never realised: this play makes light of death, but without balance the humour was entirely lost. The relationships between Charles and Elvira, and Charles and Ruth, elicited some well crafted and very humourous moments, however the ridiculous triangle that should be formed never materialised. The relief throughout was Ramani Rogeratnam’s Madame Arcati. Her performance was wonderfully outrageous and supported very well by other members of the cast. It is worth going just to see her.
The set is well conceived, the lighting sets the appropriate tone at the right moments, the stairs on one side of the stage are a beautiful touch. This stage however is let down by strange directorial decisions. I feel that so much more could have been made of the movement in this performance, Elvira in particular can show so much more of her character through movement, whereas Charles needed a touch of steadiness. His movement was erratic to the point of farce.
This is a play that leaves the audience with more questions than answers. I shall not bore you with all of mine, since you have already been subjected to several of them. It is, nevertheless, a play that can deliver. It is a play in which I can see much promise. It is a play that is only a few tweaks away from a beautifully crafted comedy. I am sure that come Friday the multitude of creases that adorned the Wednesday performance will have been firmly steampressed from existence.