Writer: Noël Coward
Director: Richard Eyre
Noël Coward is said to have written Blithe Spirit in 1941 during a short holiday in Wales, retreating from the London Blitz. Little could he have imagined that his slight, ghostly comedy would still be getting regular revivals 80 years later, but perhaps its enduring popularity has less to do with the quality of the writing than with the appeal of one character, Madame Arcati. The role has become a magnet for high profile comic actresses from Margaret Rutherford through to, most recently in the West End, Angela Lansbury, who picked up a Best Supporting Actress Olivier Award for it. Now, in a production which originated pre-pandemic at the Theatre Royal Bath, it is the turn of Jennifer Saunders.
It has been proven that Coward’s plays can be reinterpreted successfully for the modern era, but director Richard Eyre is having none of that, opting instead for a cosy, traditional production with an extravagant look. This world of English upper middle class opulence between the wars is now only familiar from very old films, but it feels comforting just as it must have felt to wartime audiences. Designer Anthony Ward creates a mountain of filled book shelves to tower over the stage and a collection of elegant (or, in the case of Madame Arcati, not so elegant) period costumes.
The plot concerns successful writer Charles (Geoffrey Streatfeild) who lives in rural Kent with his second wife Ruth (Lisa Dillon), tended by their hapless maid, Edith (Rose Wardlaw). When hosting a dinner party for the local doctor and his wife (Simon Coates and Lucy Robinson), they decide that it would be rather fun to invite along the self-proclaimed psychic, Madam Arcati, to preside over a seance. Inevitably, things go catastrophically wrong and the ghost of Charles’ seductive and mischievous first wife, Elvira (Madeleine Mantock) materialises to cause havoc.
Saunders’ wildly eccentric and mildly shabby Madame Arcati presents a whirlwind image of Edina Monsoon serving as a display stand for an array of Persian rugs. She not so much steals all her scenes as has them gifted to her by Coward, leaving the other members of a top notch cast to take it on the chin.
This is Coward’s darkest comedy in which death is treated as a mere inconvenience. The interactions between Charles and his wives are written without an ounce of romance or marital affection. In highlighting the perils of re-marriage, the writer falls short of matching the sparkling wit and sharp insights of his Private Lives and, although diversions into the supernatural are fun, they do not quite compensate.
Eyre’s nimble production generally keeps the laughs coming, but Coward has left two problems which it struggles to overcome. Firstly, Madame Arcati is offstage for long spells in the middle, leading to an inevitable lull; and, secondly, at three full acts, the play is far too long and its primary joke becomes stretched to near snapping point.
Blithe Spirit is a fluffy piece of nonsense that was originally staged to provide an escape from the gloom and doom of the world outside the theatre; in that respect, not much has changed. Saunders is terrific and the play remains, in the nicest possible way, absolutely fatuous.
Runs until 6 November 2021