Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Richard Eyre
Richard Eyre’s revival of one of Noel Coward’s most famous comedies, Blithe Spirit, comes to Brighton with Jennifer Saunders wowing the Theatre Royal audience as Madame Arcati; playing along side a solid, funny cast. Charles (Geoffrey Streatfield) is a novelist struggling with writers block. Seeking inspiration to draw upon for a new character, a fraudulent medium, he calls on Madame Arcati, an eccentric old lady in the village, to perform a séance in his home.
Hoping to get some juicy morsels he can draw upon, yet never expecting anything of consequence to happen Charles, surrounded by his new wife Ruth (Lisa Dillon), and friends Doctor and Mrs Bradman (Simon Coates and Lucy Robinson) wait for Arcarti to begin. It is here when things get particularly complex for Charles, as the spiritual gathering inadvertently conjures up his first wife, the feisty Elvira (Emma Naomi), from the veil and creates a most inconvenient and unusual love triangle.
Coward’s play, about death, afterlife and the perils of mid-life marriage, was seen as a surprise success when it was first opened in 1941, but the odd comedy proved a great escape for people preoccupied with dark times and war. It was such a hit that it ran for 1997 performances and was produced as a film in 1945, under the directorial eye of the great David Lean.
This production owes a lot to the inspired casting of Saunders. Her comedic performance is wonderfully dotty, well paced and perfectly timed. Drawing upon hints from the film Arcati, as played by Margaret Rutherford, Saunders uses all of her comedy movement to hilarious effect. Her physicality has the crowd laughing heartily from the start and it is testament to the warmth the public feels about her that she is applauded the moment she enters on stage.
While Saunders is the obvious star of the show, her fellow actors more than meet the challenge to supply fabulous and funny support. Rose Wardlaw gives a captivatingly guffaw inducing performance as the eager house maid; in places like a young Mr Overall from Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques. She is a comedy star of the future and never fails to raise a laugh throughout the proceedings.
The central couple played by Streatfield and Dillon also shine as they squabble and try to come to terms with a new, third party, suddenly thrust upon their marriage.
As the play goes on we can see Elvira will do anything to get what see wants. She’s not happy with Charles, nor with his new wife and as the home become over crowded with wives Madame Arcati is called upon once more to try and sort out the resulting mess. There are some wonderful scenes between Charles and his wives. Only Charles can hear Elvira and plenty of mirth has been created by Coward from situations when Ruth thinks she is being insulted by Charles, although he is actually talking to Elvira.
As the drama heightens the audience can see that, perhaps, Charles will never be free from the spectres that surround him, but does he deserve to be free anyway?
Blithe Spirit is at it’s very best in the moments when Saunders and Wardlaw are on stage but it is funny throughout and well worth a foray into the mystic for the evening.
Reviewed on 24 January 2020 and touring