Review: BLITHE SPIRIT, Harold Pinter Theatre

Jennifer Saunders ensures a laugh-out-loud evening

By: Sep. 22, 2021
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Blithe Spirit

Blithe SpiritRichard Eyre's production of Noël Coward's 1941 Blithe Spirit was just settling into its West End home last year when lockdown struck. Now revived with most of its original cast, it settles into the Harold Pinter theatre for an eight-week run, featuring a stage-stealing appearance by Jennifer Saunders.

Charles is an author who wants to do some research into a new book on the occult. He and his wife Ruth book the local medium Madam Arcati to come for the evening and perform a séance for him to observe. When Arcati inadvertantly raises the spirit of Charles' alluring first wife Elvira, it becomes clear that she is determined to cause mischief and mayhem in Charles' second marriage.

Jennifer Saunders provides much of the comedy as she returns to her role of Madame Arcati. She not only commands the stage, but also ensures energy and pace, which dips a little when she is not present. The decision to play her as a rosy-cheeked and sensibly-dressed countrywoman in a beige cardigan and sturdy boots, rather than an exotic bohemian works well, as it enables a huge amount of physical comedy.

Saunders show no concessions to traditional feminine behaviour; legs spread wide with large sweat patches on her dress after a vigorous bike ride. She channels a mixture of Margaret Rutherford, the original Madame Arcati, and an eccentric Hyacinth Bucket to very funny effect.

The rest of the cast knit together well. Lisa Dillon is reliably good as Ruth, the increasingly fed-up and undermined second wife. Dillon shows palpable rising tension as she tries to maintain both her dignity and outward appearances.

Geoffrey Streatfeild as ageing playboy Charles is a natural in the role; showing Basil Fawlty-levels of increasing frustration at the strange situation in which he finds himself. The chemistry with Madeleine Mantock's Elvira is not always tangible, but Mantock does well with the rather one-dimensional role of an old-school seductress, complete with platinum wig and coquettish delivery.

Support comes from Simon Coates's thoughtful doctor and Lucy Robinson's overly excitable Mrs Bradman. However, Rose Wardlaw is a laugh-out-loud standout as hapless maid Edith; hugely funny in both her physical and vocal mannerisms.

Blithe Spirit draws from the same subject as Coward's masterpiece Private Lives, of couples haunted by their past relationships and the trials of midlife marriage. Although the play now is 80 years old, this production feels both entertaining and suitably caustic. However, it is a shame that some of the comedy is derived from the rivalry between the women, with Ruth becoming an increasingly clichéd nag and Elvira the younger temptress.

Coward's dialogue remains witty and sharp, particularly when Charles talks at cross purposes to both Ruth and Elvira. Eyre's revival is both entertaining and very good fun, but feels a little slow at times, as though some of the scenes could have been either cut down or sped up.

Anthony Ward's sumptuous set of the family living room is incredibly detailed and well-thought out. Soaring shelves of books compliment the height of the Harold Pinter theatre, with lovely touches of antique rugs, Chinese pottery and crystal glasses making the setting feel very authentic.

Howard Harrison's very effective lighting allows an ethereal blue light to illuminate Elvira, while the natural daylight ebbs and flows from the large windows. While the use of dramatic 'scary' music is a little overblown, Paul Kieve's illusions provide a visually striking and comic finale to a highly enjoyable evening.

Blithe Spirit is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 6 November

Photo Credit: Nobby Clark