NOEL Coward is quite rightly referred to as ‘the master’ when it comes to flamboyant comedy.
Coward was loved for his wit and personal sense of chic as much as writing.
Blithe Spirit, his 1941 comedy about ghosts and the afterlife, has made many a generation chuckle.
I confess to having a personal affinity, as it was the first lead role I played on stage nigh on half a century ago. It’s so true what they say about long-term memory as I remembered every word.
In truth, it is a little dated which is probably why director Richard Eyre has changed the tone somewhat away from the classic ‘Rex Harrison’ film version. Rather than ‘chaps’ being dominant and women more decorative, here Charles is portrayed as petulant and the ‘weaker’ party.
For anyone that doesn’t know the plot, Condomine is a playwright who is planning a new work about a fake medium.
As part of his research, he ropes in his second wife Ruth and friends Dr and Mrs Bradman in order to hold a séance with local a medium attempting to call up the dead in the Condomine’s sprawling country house.
Unfortunately it works all too well and back from beyond comes Charles’s very beautiful but impish first wife Elvira.
What follows is a huge back-story of mid-life male crisis where Charles’s misogynistic menopauses are sorely tested by the agendas of both wives living and dead.
Here, Jennifer Saunders holds court as the medium in question, Madam Arcati. Saunders makes the part very much her own, with her frumpy, dumpy, legs akimbo, TV cop ‘Vera’ meets (sadly deceased) fat lady chef Clarissa Dickson Wright approach. She is absolutely fabulous in the role and I defy anyone not to chuckle at her antics.
The verbal husband-bashing does become a little dull at times and more of a support act for the scenes of supernatural hilarity.
Geoffrey Streatfeild is convincing as the playwright husband, as is Lisa Dillon as his second wife Ruth – Emma Naomi brings a Jean Harlow quality to spectral first wife Elvira – resplendent in translucent blue flouncy frock, Simon Coates plays Dr Bradman like a doctor of that bygone era, who will come to your bedside if you can’t get to him. Lucy Robinson plays Mrs Bradman, his dutiful wife, with just the right air of class superiority.
With the exception of Saunders’ triumphant Arcati, Rose Wardlaw stands out as Edith the maid. She is immensely watchable and makes the most of her every moment on stage.
Anthony Ward’s lavish, double-storey set complete with a huge library looming over the lounge, works perfectly and provides the ideal space for Paul Kieve’s illusions. Elvira pops up all over the place – out of thin air – clever stuff indeed as is the show ending where the ex-wives conjure up a tornado.
To me, as good as this Blithe Spirit is (and it is very good indeed) it could be even better – maybe the talented Mr Eyre will add a few tweaks and cuts to some of the wordiness before it opens in the West End.
Hope so, but regardless the ‘house full’ signs are up in Malvern and no doubt the same will happen in London.
Review by Euan Rose.