Coward’s comedies are always hilariously shrewd and the main joke of this play is depicting an afterlife that is very much the same as every day life, which would have had a certain sting in its post-war context. Filled with the tedium of paper work and queuing, we realise that we escape nothing in death, not even our past affairs and failures.
Socialite and novelist, Charles Condomine, invites eccentric medium Madam Arcati, to his house to conduct a séance in research for his next book. It is however, the chapters of his own life that he is forced to face as he becomes haunted by first wife Elvira. She becomes the third wheel to his marriage with second wife, Ruth and increasingly disruptive. As the ambassador of reasonability, Charles lavishes both women with incredible sympathy, but despite his greatest efforts, diplomacy fails.
Again Coward’s cynical representation of marriage is satiric, as the characters bickering and insults saturate the formidable dialogue. These fiery scenes between the triad are some of the most entertaining of the play. The invisibility of Elvira, played by Nicola Howe, is given physical attention, as diverted spite and fervour are well directed by Rik Eke and Heather Noble and performed brilliantly, particularly by Ruth played by Christine Moran.
Elvira, however, is far from demure and in fact her admittance of infidelity and sensual allure makes her very much ‘of body’ far more than the living Ruth, who seems to stimulate Charles’ wit. This contradiction adds extra spice to procedures and frustrates the plot further, not to mention poor Charles (Gareth Saunders).
The only character totally thrilled with how everything turns out is balmy old Arcati. Liz Carroll enlivens the whole performance by her first appearance, when she becomes the heart, soul and limbs of the play, which she carelessly flings around the room to summon spirits. Her bohemian shawl hangs naturally on her shoulders and her serious darting eyes gives authenticity to her claim as a professional. She alone walks (or cycles) away scathe free, with a bag full of moreish cucumber sandwiches. Gareth also gave a star performance and is the core of the play. He was a pleasure to watch as he affected the classic British gentleman with all the airs of social politeness, weighted by jealousy, ego and bewilderment of the situation.
It is only at the end that this seem to fall apart and Charles becomes almost possessed, which is given pathetic fallacy as the scene shatters to a climatic finish, with lights that sizzle and flare, picture that fall and the chandelier that ominously rocks.
Progress Theatre, Reading 17th-22nd June 2013. Tickets www.ReadingArts.com or 0118 960 6060