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Review: Blithe Spirit (Theatre Royal Brighton)

Propulsive and Beautifully Acted… Dated Mid-life Crisis of a Weary White Chauvinist

Noel Coward’s 1941 classic comedy, revived by former National Theatre director, Sir Richard Eyre and starring Jennifer Saunders is revving up for the West End.

Charles and Ruth Condomine – (comfortably-orff, clipped speaking, scratchy husband and wife) - have invited a Medium, Madam Arcati, to dinner in their country pile. The alleged reason being that Charles (played rakishly by Geoffrey Streatfield) is a writer who wants to pick up some of the ‘tricks of the trade’ for a séance scene in his current novel. Respectable friends, the skeptical Bradmans, (Simon Coates and Lucy Robinson) have also been invited, to share in the anticipated joy of ridiculing the old fraud once she’s gone. Of course Coward is skilfully setting up these smug couples and building our anticipation of turning the tables on them when a real ghost is actually summoned. The play is so well known, I’ll risk the spoiler: Charles’s sexy dead wife Elvira (played sensuously by Emma Naomi) apparates in a shimmering spotlight, wearing a filmy silver-grey dress and luscious red lipstick, but only Charles can see her. She won’t go away. Jealousy fuelled domestic mayhem ensues. 

The play opens with pre-dinner-party fuss as Ruth Condomine (Lisa Dillon) painstakingly attempts to instil the concept of calm, unobtrusive service from her gawky, trainee-maid Edith. My favourite running joke of the evening is the Running Joke - Edith (played by Rose Wardlaw), despite her mistress’ instruction to glide, bounds, sprints and hurtles, with the grace of a potato about the stage in her nervous anxiety to please. When sent to fetch Charles’ cigar case, she skids to a stop under his chin. Wardlaw’s physical comedy was a highlight of the evening. Her lumpen struggles with the daunting tray-load of cut glass, elbows up to her ears and a dopey look of concentration on her face reminded me of Julie Walters’ chronically clumsy Mrs Overall; Wardlaw’s Edith could be her granddaughter.

Jennifer Saunders is an absolute hoot, playing the eccentric bicycle-riding medium, Madam Arcati. The Brighton audience with psychic foresight, applauded her at first glimpse. There is something endearing about her frumpy woollen cardi’, sensible boots, bright red cheeks and earnest enthusiasm for the after-life. Ridiculous and loveable, Saunders injects surprising energy into her batty old biddy, with her wide-legged careering gait, startled eyes and carefree hand flinging. Her serious regard for ectoplasm and cucumber sandwiches was evident in delightfully silly tongue-protruding grimaces of reverential contemplation. Although she is not very ethereal, her trance dance is wonderfully absurd and nicely off-set by an impatient little jerk of the head, when she notices the dinner guests giggling.

Coward famously wrote the play in six days and pace is of the essence in the increasingly cruel, slick  bickering dialogue, often at cross-purposes, between the husband and his two wives. The cast manage this well although Elvira seems to be from a different era – her petulant tones at times are more 21st century teenage than 1940s chic. The Bradmans are solid and stolid comic foils. Dr Bradman could have been played for more comedy, especially when called upon to diagnose Charles’ ‘symptoms’ of being haunted by his ex-wife. Mrs Bradman has a tinkling superior social manner which gets nicely up your nose. Lisa Dillon as the initially coolheaded but up-tight second wife Ruth, is compelling; she is full of jittery energy and has moments of genuine distress, but the humour derived from a woman driven to hysteria is tired and at times she gets her teeth stuck on the quick fire lines. When Charles reaches an apoplectic, climax of exasperation: ‘Women! My god, what I think of women!’ personally I was a little bored by the tedious gender politics. But I was in the minority. The audience guffawed with pleasure at the thing done well according to the period, and there was sympathy a-plenty for his complaint of being ‘hag-rid’ practically from birth.  

Blithe Spirit was an instant success when it first opened at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1941, offering a welcome distraction from the war.  Richard Eyre’s revival evokes a charming, brittle, self-absorption of the upper-class and the elegance of the time. The set is sumptuous and exquisitely designed by Antony Ward. The dark wood spiral staircase leading to a mezzanine, lined to the ceiling with shelves of books is lovely to see and provides a perfect vantage point for Elvira’s first spectral appearance. The gramophone, the red and gold settee, the piano, the tall mantle piece, the fluttering long curtains moving on a breeze from the open doors to the garden are all beautiful and transporting. Once you give in to the dated, daft fluffiness of it all, there is lots to enjoy, not least the hilarious performances of Saunders and Wardlaw.


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