REVIEW: Blithe Spirit a fine nod to the original, bookended by some splendid individual performances, makes for a delightfully funny night out

Blithe Spirit ®Nobby Clark – Geoffrey Streatfeild (Charles) & Lucy Robinson (Mrs Bradman) & Jennifer Saunders (Madame Arcati) & Lisa Dillon (Ruth) & Simon Coates (Dr Bradman)

Venue: Harold Pinter Theatre

Performance Date: 21 September 2021

Reviewer: Gemma Fincher

Star Rating: ★★★★

It’s safe to say that COVID took a gargantuan jackhammer to the theatre industry leaving tours and West End runs in its wake. One such victim was the Theatre Royal Bath’s production of Blithe Spirit. Scarcely 12 performances into their six-week run at the Duke of York’s Theatre, the UK was plunged into its first national lockdown, and (most) theatres went dark for the next 18 or so months, Blithe Spirit didn’t even make it to Press Night. Fortunately, the production is back on the boards in its new home, the Harold Pinter Theatre for an eight-week run.

All but one of the previous cast returns in Noël Coward’s dark comedy of afterlife shenanigans and psychic philandering. Written in 1941 the play revolves around novelist Charles Condomine (Geoffrey Streatfeild) who, to garner inspiration for his new book, invites eccentric medium Madame Arcati (Jennifer Saunders) to a dinner party with his wife Ruth (Lisa Dillon) and friends Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Simon Coates and Lucy Robinson). The evening takes a supernatural turn when the ghost of Charles’s late first wife Elvira (Madeleine Mantock) appears (only to him). Hellbent on causing mischief, the decadent Elvira sets about disrupting Charles and Ruth’s marriage, much to the latter’s horror.

Considering the play was written 80 years ago, it’s quite remarkable that it continues to endure and endear a modern audience. The comedy is still razor sharp, with the laughs continuous throughout. Director Richard Eyre has taken no liberties with the look and feel and retains the aesthetic of the time. The play takes place in the Condomine’s living room and Anthony Ward successfully transports the audience into the book laden, high ceilinged front room, the attention to detail in the set design is quite exquisite.

The small cast is incredibly tight and play off each other beautifully, comic timing, nuanced looks and slick movement combine to provide the perfect comedy performance. Geoffrey Streatfeild is charming as the haunted and conflicted novelist. Torn between two women, one alive, one dead Streatfeild delivers a believable and amusing turn as the hopeless husband shuttlecocked between the two formidable women. It would have been interesting to see Charles fight the paranormal force of Elvira more, instead he (pretty much) readily accepts her presence, it would have been fascinating to see him question his sanity further.

Flanking Streatfeild is the glamorous and beguiling Madeleine Mantock as the flirtatious and gregarious Elvira. Again, Anthony Ward excels himself with Elvira’s ghostly aesthetic, and her costume is positively spirit-like. Mantock nimbly floats around the set, in an almost Titania-like fashion. She’s like an incredibly glamorous and naughty nymph, delivering a performance full of poise and assurance. Mantock is complemented in droves by Lisa Dillon’s uptight and haughty Ruth. Intimidated by the memory of Elvira, her appearance does nothing for Ruth’s confidence in her shaky marriage, leaving her aghast and frustrated at every turn.

The feather in the cap of this play is of course the larger-than-life character of Madame Arcati. Many a formidable actress have stepped into her shoes including Margaret Rutherford, and more recently Angela Lansbury. For this run it’s the turn of Jennifer Saunders who positively revels in the role of the spry and unconventional medium. Donning outlandish clothes and eating the Condomine’s out of house and home, Saunders’ Madame Arcati is bags of fun and comedy gold. However, Saunders’ star turn is almost upstaged by Rose Wardlaw as hapless housemaid Edith. For large parts of the play Wardlaw makes hilarious cameo appearances, there is a shade of Acorn Antiques in her delivery. She is an incredibly accomplished performer with impeccable timing.

Blithe Spirit airs on the farcical and is quintessential Coward comedy. Unapologetic in its subject matter, the normal dark subject of death is not spared. This production, a fine nod to its original, bookended by some splendid individual performances, makes for a delightfully funny night out.

Runs Until: Runs until 6 November 2021

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