Theatre reviews: Blithe Spirit, Evita and A Taste Of Honey

Caroline Harker, Nichola McAuliffe and Andrew Hall in Blithe Spirit at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Anthony Robling
Caroline Harker, Nichola McAuliffe and Andrew Hall in Blithe Spirit at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Anthony Robling
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Blithe Spirit, York Theatre Royal by Nick Ahad ****

Sometimes it’s good to dust off the old classics and be reminded of just how good they are.

Sure, it’s old fashioned and yes it harks back to an England that probably never really existed, with men dressing in black tie and women in ball gowns for dinner in country houses full of eccentrics, but that’s not a reason to consign the classics to history. Director Damian Cruden wisely chooses to do little other than present a straightforward telling of the story in a design by Nigel Hook that might have been created to allow theatre critics to use the word sumptuous. It is beautiful, as are the costumes as is the story.

Noel Coward’s comedy was hugely inventive for its time, calling for a stage to be affected by the paranormal. In 1941, when it first began its record-breaking West End run, one wonders how terrifying it might have been for audiences who witnessed the occult.

Novelist Charles Condomine lives a life of luxury with his second wife Ruth. His first wife, Elvira, died seven years previously and Charles has the shard of ice in his heart that all writers are supposed to possess. Coward clearly had some fun writing him.

To inform his new novel, Charles invites a medium, Madame Arcati, to dinner. Prepared to ridicule her, he is surprised by her gifts. Nichola McAuliffe, as Madame Arcati, is a scenery chewing, scene stealing marvel. It is a sheer joy to watch.

A Taste of Honey, Cast, Doncaster by Nick Ahad *****

You don’t spend a decade as a theatre critic without seeing A Taste of Honey.

Which is why I want to thank director Mark Babych for making it feel like I was watching this classic of British theatre for the first time.

Shelagh Delaney’s extraordinary piece of work has become lumbered with being A Very Important Play.

It came at a time when the Angry Young Men were reclaiming a form of expression they had been denied for far too long. It’s easy, when faced with a work of such stature to treat it reverentially, to put on white gloves to carry it out of its protective bubble. I never want to see another version of Look Back in Anger presented as though I were watching it in a museum. In order to direct A Taste of Honey for this Hull Truck Theatre production, Babych has taken the gloves off. The result is a piece of work that is immediate, visceral and heart-wrenching and it makes you view the play in a whole new light.

By getting down and dirty, not worrying about the anachronisms (the prospect of a mixed race baby was far more shocking than today. I hope) and simply digging right into the heart of the piece, Babych has given new life to Delaney’s words.

Helen is a feckless mother, a story told with a genius piece of sparsity by Delaney, by having her daughter call her by her first name. Loose with her morals, Helen has brought up a typically rebellious teenager in Jo, who is as headstrong and determined as her mother is flighty and unreliable. It is, of course, Jo who falls pregnant with the baby of a sailor and has to suffer the consequences. Babych has helped Julie Riley as Helen and Rebecca Ryan as Jo find the emotional heart in two brilliant performances. Ryan in particular, as the wilful Jo, is electrifyingly good. This play’s never looked so vital.

• To May 17. SJT, Scarborough, May 20-24, York Theatre Royal, July 8-12.

• To May 31.

Evita, Leeds Grand Theatre by Liz Coggins ****

No matter how many times Evita is revived for the stage it always retains that incredible dramatic intensity that ignited the West End when it opened back in 1978.

Evita tells the story of Eva Peron, and her rise to become one of the most adored women in Argentina, and unfurls through the words of Che, the narrator, and some of the most memorable songs in the world of musical theatre.

Madalena Alberto is a powerful and emotionally charged Evita. With firm conviction, she portrays Evita from her humble beginnings as an ambitious young girl to a woman of great wealth and power. Bringing a new passionate dimension to the song Don’t Cry for Me Argentina this actress created an unforgettable theatrical experience for her audience.

As Juan Peron, Mark Heenehan is imposing and stately combining superb acting with a powerful voice. Together they establish a wonderful on stage chemistry that is passionate, strong yet tender and at times very moving especially in their final duet together. The role of Che, who links Eva’s life in both dialogue and song is not an easy one but Marti Pellow tackles this role with energy and attack. An impressive production not to be missed.

• To May 17.