Blithe Spirit, Noël Coward’s beloved 1941 comedy about the possibility of life after death, returns to the West End in the ghostly shadow of the pandemic. Interrupted two weeks into its original run at the Duke of York’s theatre in 2020, Richard Eyre’s production, first staged at Theatre Royal Bath in 2019, has been a long time coming. And with Jennifer Saunders’s faultless embodiment of the cherished clairvoyant Madame Arcati, it is worth the wait.
As she bumbles into the Condomines’ home, talking of punctured bicycle tyres and conversations with the dead, Saunders instantly commands the stage with a cloddish power. She is full of eccentricity, dressed in a flurry of brown knitwear, awkward-looking knee-length skirts, and sensible shoes. Sitting spread-legged, she cools herself gracelessly by fanning herself with her clothes, and wolfs down sandwiches at any opportunity – but her physical comedy is never overplayed. Once the séance begins and she allows her body to be released into a lumbering trance, she looks determined to connect with spirits from beyond the grave. She is successful. Charles’s first wife, Elvira, appears – a not entirely welcome return.
Though the best moments come when Saunders is centre-stage, the rest of the cast do well to hold their own. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Charles and Lisa Dillon’s Ruth welcome us into their perfectly fashioned Kent abode, complete with ceiling-high bookshelves and antique vases, with loving, if sometimes over the top, bickering and jealousy. Still, the standout is Rose Wardlaw’s portrayal of the anxious housemaid Edith, whose frantic and bewildered possession is one of the few properly laugh-out-loud moments.
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