Venue: Harold Pinter Theatre. Panton Street, London
Credits: By Noël Coward. Directed by Richard Eyre. Produced by Theatre Royal Bath Productions, Lee Dean and Jonathan Church Theatre Productions
Performance Date: 21/09/2021
Richard Eyre’s take on Noël Coward’s nice old 1941 warhorse is decently fresh. Of course the play is, effectively a traditional drawing room comedy and so far from the gritty realism of today that it only comes off with lots of verve. And that’s exactly what this production serves up.
We’re used to seeing Madame Arcati in eccentric flowing robes and often being almost a spirit herself. Jennifer Saunders does it differently. She arrives for dinner in a sensible “best” crimplene frock with frumpy shoes and witchy, straggly grey hair which she probably cuts herself. She is plausible, slightly coarse, patrician and forthright. When she returns later she wears a tweed shirt – and touch of genius – ankle socks. Only for her séances does she produce (from a capacious carpet bag) a relatively exotic cap and robe. Saunders is very funny, as you’d expect. She flits about incongruously and there’s a wonderful moment when she ends up on her back with sturdy legs pointing upwards and everyone on stage … reacts.
Geoffrey Streatfeild as the initially urbane, upper middle class Kent husband brings plenty of well judged hilarious distress to his character as life gets ever more complicated. Lisa Dillon is strong as Ruth the current wife, running her home and being revoltingly satisfied with the comfortable life she enjoys – until Elvira, the first wife appears.
It is always a challenge to make Elvira convincing as a ghost. In this production she first appears dramatically in silver light on platform 15 feet or so above the action. And that works well. Her costume (designed by Anthony Ward) is apt too – a sort of ethereal floaty, blue number – and she has chalk white hair. Once Ruth joins her as a spirit she is dressed identically. It makes the story telling crystal clear.
Rose Wardlaw gives a splendid performance as Edith the maid who charges about everywhere, speaks in a strange strangled voice and runs with her big moment in the second half.
I admired Ward’s set too. His version of the Condomine home is bookish with shelves behind the upstage piano and thickly lined along the upper landing. It means there’s plenty for the poltergeists to have fun with.
Coward’s dialogue is masterly and this company makes it nip along wittily although the last 20 minutes or so seems a bit drawn out almost as though the joke has gone on long enough – despite the clever little theatrical coup at the very end.
First published by Sardines: https://www.sardinesmagazine.co.uk/review/blithe-spirit-10/