DAMIAN Cruden has loved Noel Coward's supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit ever since seeing his mother play Elvira in the early 1970s in his Scottish childhood days in Sthrathaven.

York Theatre Royal's artistic director now realises a long-held wish to direct Coward's favourite of his own plays, a ghostly tale written at speed with Britain at war in 1941.

Coward called it an "improbable farce" and, as he wrote in his diary, "a very gay superficial comedy about death", and Cruden's finely finessed production plays true to those sentiments.

It opens with the ghost of Coward tapping away at his typewriter in a voiceover by Blair Plant that enunciates the Master's stage directions: a witty touch that is repeated for each scene change before the curtain rises. On each side of the proscenium arch stage, a chair is placed in front of the curtain, again giving a spectral sense of something ghostly in attendance.

Once the curtain lifts, the chairs then form part of the Condomines' drawing room in early 1940s Kent, where gentleman novelist Charles Condomine (Andrew Hall) and his prim second wife, Ruth (Caroline Harker) are awaiting the arrival of the ever-so-nice Dr Bradman (Blair Plant) and his demure wife Violet (Rachel Atkins) for a séance to be conducted by bicycling, sandwich-loving, eccentric local spirit medium Madame Arcati (Nichola McAuliffe).

Not long settled in the village, the whirlwind medium is very much an outsider, all the more so for being played with an exaggerated southern Welsh accent by McAuliffe. Ironically, for all its added comic possibilities, it works against the intelligence that Cruden had insisted was a principal characteristic of the oft-misunderstood Madame.

Hall's elegantly dismissive Charles has organised the evening for research purposes for his next book, wishing to pour scorn on séances, but while Coward calls his comedy superficial, it has a scariness too to complement the anarchic comic possibilities he mines from the unexpected appearance of "morally untidy" Elvira (Amy Rockson), Charles's deceitful, dangerously alluring first wife. She passed over to the other side seven years ago but the itch to resolve unfinished business can be contained no longer.

Stirring trouble and cocktails in equal measure, only Charles can see, hear and engage in spiky conversation with agent provocateur Elvira: a devilishly clever comic device by Coward that Cruden and his cast relish, especially Rockson's scorpion Elvira.

Cruden's direction is as meticulous as Charles' Martini-mixing skills, and the humour is on occasion just as dry, although McAuliffe's medium is larger than life, physically comic where the rest are not. The staging is well choreographed but a quickening of the pace would not go amiss, potentially increasing the audience's levels of laughter, which fall short of past productions your reviewer has seen.

Nevertheless, there is all the gloss yet darkening undercurrents necessary for Blithe Spirit and designer Nigel Hook is in top form, providing both sartorial elegance and eccentricity (for Madame Arcati) and a splendidly English drawing room before pulling out all the stops for the famous misbehaving ghost finale.

Blithe Spirit, York Theatre Royal, until May 31. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk