Blithe Spirit is a witty comedy that was written by Noel Coward in 1941. The plot begins when novelist Charles Condomine (Geoffrey Streatfield), invites a psychic medium, Madame Arcati (Jennifer Saunders), to his house to conduct a séance, in hope of gathering material for a lead character in his next thriller. His plan backfires when the ghost of his dead, first wife, Elvira (Madeleine Mantock), materialises during Madame Arcati’s ‘trance’, and is determined to destroy Charles’ second marriage. His second wife, Ruth (Lisa Dillon), can neither see nor hear the ghost, and is sure that her husband is either teasing her or drunk. It’s only when items begin floating round the house (on demand), that Ruth is convinced Elvira is there, and very soon realizes this is a battle of life and death.
I understand the relevance of the play, as it touches a question that, since the banishment from Eden, and as long as mankind exists, will forever perturb us; What happens to us/our loved ones after we/ they pass? In 1941, when the play was written and produced, in the midst of World War II, the presence of death must have emphasized this question -and today, too, looking back at the last couple of years, at least the fear of death is very much alive.
What I feel is less relevant, is the atmosphere of the play, which is not only outdated but magnified in this production by most of the cast, who seem to be acting out their stereotypes, more than the emotional and dramatic state of their characters. Even the way they pronounce their lines, puts unnecessary pressure on the built-in humor, which is unflattering to Cowards’ brilliant wit. The two women in particular, are portrayed as merely the stereotypical wives of their husband; ‘the sensible’ versus ‘femme-fatale’, as if they have no deeper inner-world of their own, which is a pity. Even the new and helpless maid, Edith (Rose Wardlaw), who has some touching moments, pushes the character over-the-top.
In contrast, Jennifer Saunders, although playing a role that could easily be a cliché, creates a specific and fully detailed character as the clairvoyant. Everything about her seems blessedly real, and Saunders delivers each punch gracefully, leaving the character unaware she is funny. Every line, look and reaction are derived from the true emotional and physical state of Saunders’ unforgettable “Madam Arcati’.
I must also compliment Simon Coates, as skeptical Dr. Bradman- a small but convincing role, played with a wonderful poker-face.
It was, in all, an enjoyable evening, and for Jennifer Saunders, it’s worth seeing this production of “Blithe Spirit”, although I cannot help feeling that it could have been so much more, had it been directed more sincerely, or even, I daresay, updated.
- Noël Coward
- Director: Richard Eyre
- Set & Costume Designer: Anthony Ward
- Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison
- Cast includes: Jennifer Saunders, Rose Wardlaw, Lisa Dillon, Geoffrey Streatfeild, Madeleine Mantock, Lucy Robinson, Simon Coats
- Harold Pinter Theatre
- Until 06 November 2021
- Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes incl. interval