Peter Pegnall reviews the Cromer and Sheringham Operatic and Dramatic Society production of Blithe Spirit at Sheringham Little Theatre.

Last night (October 18) more than 150 blithe spirits sailed into the rain-soaked streets of Sheringham.

They had been to see an effervescent, brilliantly paced performance of Noel Coward’s dark farce, a play which has always been difficult to classify but easy to enjoy.

I have to say that I had misgivings about the choice of text: would it not seem impossibly dated to a contemporary audience?

Was Madame Arcati such a monstrous creation that she would upstage everyone? The casting of Margaret Rutherford and Jennifer Saunders in previous productions might have fuelled that fear.

It took very little time for that hesitation to dissolve. From the central position of the phonograph to the first swish of Ruth Condamine’s dress, this production revelled in its period atmosphere.

Even more significant may have been the timings of the first and the current presentations. In 1941, the London stage had a duty to distract and entertain a world immersed in warfare. In 2023, The Little Theatre clearly has its part to play in raising morale and exercising the laughter muscles.

Having said that, this is no vacuous romp, no frothy comedy. The French windows let in and let out a good deal of bile: it was as if no one could truly leave this house of mendacity and machination.

Take the first two prongs of the love triangle. Charles Condomine is, from the start, a self-satisfied, oleaginous bully.

His high spirits are maintained by large amounts of alcohol and smart quips. The hapless Edith bears the brunt of his so-called wit and we learn that domestic staff come and go with regularity in this household. No wonder.

Lee Johnson caught the character of the man perfectly, stressing the fragility through the façade, leading us to decide for ourselves was this a misogynist or a Mummy’s boy, or both!

Ruth, his partner in bickering was no wilting lily. She was quite determined to prove more powerful than the first Mrs. Condomine, even when she was being thrown into cruel confusion.

Her changes of clothing were statements of intent as well as high couture.

Nicola Gilbert gave a thoroughly convincing portrait as a domestic tigress, whose jealousy was more an act of possession than a proof of love; theirs was a toxic marriage before the spectral shenanigans began.

To the séance and the astonishing tour de force that is Madame Arcati.

This eccentric, dotty, weirdly erotic figure paid no attention whatsoever to the lives shipwrecked around her. She was more interested in cucumber sandwiches than human distress.

Above all, she was obsessed by her status in the spirit world: her drug of choice was a sniff of ectoplasm. It was incredible to witness the energy coursing through Phillipa Baillie’s performance; she flew around the stage like a whirling dervish, grabbing refreshments galore as she went.

At any sign of mockery she stiffened, grew irate and dictatorial: those toffs would not malign her professional dignity.

And they submitted, however absurd that seemed to be. There was a riveting moment when she became thrilled by her first memories of contacting ‘the other side’: orgasmic is the only word to do justice to her experience.

And she was seven years old! A splendid and bold directorial touch, leaving both actors and audience somewhat nonplussed. If I have any doubts about the character, they lie with Noel Coward rather than Philippa.

He does lay her on very thick, especially in Act Two. By then, the focus belongs with Charles and his women and her presence, so very verbose, slightly dissipates the horrible claustrophobia, the disease that will not be cured.

Elvira makes a phenomenal entry from eternity, having been present for a long time before she appears. She proceeds to lead Charles a merry dance, weaving in and out of the furniture, tantalising, scoffing, acting the part she clearly relished in life.

A flirt with an appetite for the real thing. Many times over. Charles’ entrancement leads him to be viciously abusive to Ruth, who does her best to suppress her grief and maintain her authority.

This is remarkable drama and exposes deep flaws in all three protagonists. Elvira ( played by Lucy Connor) is transparent in her desire to crush Ruth, Ruth sees how little power she has, but will not surrender, Charles wallows in the menage au trois without any genuine feeling for either of his concubines.

They will all tire of each other whether they meet in purgatory or stay in hell, scoring futile points, forever and a day.

Sounds rather like one of the Irving Berlin songs that carried the nation through the Second World War. Which brings us back to 1941 and 2023.

Be sure not to miss this coruscating celebration of a play which contains a great deal more than greets the eye. Risk the rain.

Blithe Spirit runs until October 21.