Blithe Spirit (Richmond Theatre, until February 22nd)
Classic comedy drama by the mighty Noël Coward comes to Richmond Theatre prior to a West End run and it is so fresh, funny and fabulous that it is bound to leave you in high spirits.
Over nearly 80 years Blithe Spirit has proved to be endearing and enduring, resilient through the dark days of the Blitz in wartime through political turmoil and social change in subsequent decades. Out of all Coward’s plays it has largely resisted claims of being out of date, creakily of its time or unbearably misogynistic.
There’s a big screen version starring Judi Dench on its way but for the time being our haunted and shadowy age is treated to this sparkling Theatre Royal, Bath, and Jonathan Church production with director Richard Eyre teasing out every aspect of the supernatural comedy with a radiant cast.
The towering role of Madame Arcati, the eccentric clairvoyant who raises the ghost of a novelist’s late wife after a country house dinner party in Kent, is one of the best written for actresses with the likes of Margaret Rutherford, Angela Lansbury, Beryl Reid, Peggy Mount and Alison Steadman having tackled the character over the years.
While it’s a gift of a part it is no easy ride, but in this ravishing production the glorious Jennifer Saunders is in scene-stealing top form. Her frumpy, bike-riding, batty and frenetically happy medium barely knows her own powers, despite undeniably being the genuine article, so is ecstatic to discover that the séance has been so successful.
It’s a performance of perfect comic timing and enjoyable dottiness with this sardonic psychic as overjoyed by a well-made dry Martini or a tasty cucumber sandwich as she is by a spectral presence. There’s also a layer of cheeky naughtiness: seldom has the line “I had my first ectoplasmic manifestation at the age of five-and-a-half” sounded so suggestively saucy.
Behind the initial séance is novelist Charles Condomine, researching his new book and expecting nothing but parlour tricks. Geoffrey Streatfeild unravels wonderfully as the writer’s arrogant confidence turns to panic and irritated acceptance as he realises he is the only one who can see the ghost of his wife, Elivra, who died several years previously and there’s a mounting hysteria as he grasps that he is being nagged by not one wife but two.
Emma Naomi’s moody Elvira is a shrewd spirit – she has been on the waiting list to come back to earth to haunt and taunt her ex-husband – shimmering and floating her way around Anthony Ward’s gorgeous living room set, with one wall impressively populated by vast bookcases. This is a fed-up phantom, an eager young bride who had visions of parties and the high life only to find herself wedded to a “monumental bore” whose idea of the perfect honeymoon was a trip to Budleigh Salterton.
Lisa Dillon as Charles’ second wife Ruth is more down to earth, a straight-thinker who believes her husband is not only bored in their marriage but probably playing tricks on her and she gradually loses temper and sanity until she realises the truth. Dillon discovers an empathetic side to the character, with a more gleefully vengeful aspect coming out beyond the grave.
Rose Wardlaw makes a very great deal of one of Coward’s delightfully dippy minor characters, the energetic edgy new maid Edith, hysterically funny as she races and bobs around the stage, eager to please her new employers.
Simon Coates and Lucy Robinson as Dr and Mrs Bradman provide the solid support of the friends called in to witness the first séance, but then find themselves subject to the eerie whirlwind that has been created in the house. Both ensure that their roles are not simply adjuncts but commendably three-dimensional.
Remarkably Coward dashed off this durable comedy in a week. This always enjoyable production recognises and revels in the fact that it is so well-constructed and wildly witty, with a catchy sense of fun, frothy performances and exquisite production values.
The writer may have dubbed Blithe Spirit “a gay, superficial comedy about a ghost” but this bright and breezy production of his improbable comedy in three acts proves its a timeless joy that is well worth its regular revivals.
Images: Nobby Clark