Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit when he fled the Blitz for a week in Wales, and decided to churn out some ‘light relief’ for embattled Londoners.
Although dealing with spiritualism and unsettled spirits, it is funny from start to finish, and the medium, Madame Arcati, has become one of the great comedy roles in English theatre.
How appropriate for the Duke of York’s to revive the play now in this current crisis, and what a special delight to have AbFab’s Jennifer Saunders play Arcati. It is sublime.
Blithe Spirit was one of Coward’s most successful plays delighting London audiences throughout the darkest war years.
He wrote the play after turning 40, and at a time when he was torn between the louche delights of youth and respectable middle age. This is reflected in the plot.
A writer, Charles, comes face to face with his exotic past, when the medium Madame Arcati conjures up his dead wife, the vampish Elvira. A struggle ensues between Elvira and his current (sensible) wife, Ruth, for possession of Charles.
At times, like Coward, he seems unsure which he prefers. His racy past or his comfortable future.
The idea for this spiritual triangle came from a real case among Coward’s friends. The writer Radclyffe Hall was torn between her new partner and her old one, who she spoke with in a séance.
It is also worth saying that Coward’s mother and aunt were both spiritualism enthusiasts. His mother once even attended a public séance at the London Coliseum where she consulted the medium about whether her 11 year old son should continue his obsession with the theatre.
Thank God the medium said “yes.”
The original production launched the career of Margaret Rutherford who embodied Madame Arcati and successfully reprised the character in the delightful 1944 film. This often makes it hard for new actors coming to the role take possession of it, but we need have no such fear with Jennifer Saunders.
Margaret Rutherford (and AbFab’s Edina) are far away, as she puts her own particular spin on this wonderful batty eccentric, and has the audience in stitches. Clad in Indian robes and quaffing martinis she gives a bravura performance.
Likewise, although the role of Charles Condomine has obvious echoes of Coward, these are cleverly shaken off by Geoffrey Streatfield’s strongly individual performance. He is both commanding and amusing.
There are also plenty of laughs generated by the excellent comedic performance of Lisa Dillon as his sensible second wife Ruth.
The audience’s sympathy is with her as she seeks to keep her home and marriage together and cope with her annoying house maid Edith (Rose Wardlaw loving it), and the new challenges from Charles’s old love Elvira. Emma Naomi seems slightly miscast as the vamp, although her eerie entrances are well brought off.
Director Richard Eyre brings the action together well, although at times slow. The séance scene is particularly well done, and even a little spooky, despite the presence of the sceptical Dr and Mrs. Bradman (Simon Coates and the talented Lucy Robinson).
Anthony Ward’s set and costumes are quite excellent. The living room of Charles Condomine’s house in Kent has book shelves that stretch to the very top of the stage, while all the costumes from Madame Arcati’s paisleys to Elvira’s chiffons are just right.
Helen Keane’s wigs are also notable – it is at times hard to recognise Saunders.
A wonderful evening of comedy, far away from today’s troubles.
Blithe Spirit is at The Duke of York’s Theatre until April 11.
Call the box office on 0844 871 7615.
(Performances subject to possible cancellation due to the coronavirus outbreak)