With unruly eyebrows, rosy cheeks and perspiration stains in very unfortunate places, Jennifer Saunders embraces her turn as Madame Arcati from the very start. The eccentric medium arrives via bicycle, and before she even utters a word, you know you are in for a treat.
She has been invited to the home of novelist Charles Condomine to conduct a séance, which results in her accidently conjuring up the ghost of his first wife, Elvira.
Do ghosts and conversations around mortality really have the makings of laugh-out-loud entertainment? You would think not. But, the two and a half hours of wit and mayhem that is Blithe Spirit are enough to make any sceptic think again.
Noël Coward’s farcical comedy has been entertaining audiences since the Second World War, having been written in 1941 as a contribution to the war effort.
It therefore seems fitting that this revival should come about as the country emerges from lockdown. It is here once again to boost morale and, quite literally, lift spirits.
This most recent production can be relished at The Harold Pinter Theatre for just eight weeks. Under Richard Eyre’s direction, it feels fresh and lively, immediately putting to bed any suggestion that the story has had its day.
While Charles (Geoffrey Streatfield) and his current wife Ruth (Lisa Dillon) prepare for the evening, it becomes apparent he has organised the séance as what he thinks will be amusing research for his next novel. The couple are mocking, pompous and sceptical, believing Arcati to be “a complete charlatan”.
From the moment the guest of honour arrives, Jennifer Saunders stands strong as the latest in a long line of actresses to have taken on the role, including the likes of Margaret Rutherford, Dame Angela Lansbury and most recently, Dame Judi Dench in the 2020 film adaptation.
Early in her performance, an elaborate trance results in Saunders’ Arcati fainting, her talent for physical comedy stealing the stage. As the lights come up, she is lying centre stage, legs akimbo.
Slapstick moments such as this are reminiscent of the humour she brought to her sitcom Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2012), as well as the hugely successful sketch show French and Saunders (1987-2007), and Saunders’ natural ability to act the fool makes this her perfect role.Embed from Getty Images
In more nuanced moments, Arcati can be seen pulling faces, devouring cucumber sandwiches, and using her chest to polish her crystal ball, all while gesturing for yet another dry martini. These subtleties demonstrate the depth of Saunders’ comedy talent, witnessing it in real time is a joy.
Bursting at the seams with innuendo, yet never vulgar, Coward’s clever comedy feels appropriate for the range of ages in the audience.
Madeline Mantock makes her West End debut as the seductive Elvira – the spirit who remains unseen to everybody but her former husband. Taking delight in flirting with him, she drapes herself longingly at every opportunity. Surrounded by a permanent pale blue hue, she pops up as if from nowhere and weaves her way between actors.
As Elvira attempts to resurrect their former passion, actions have dire consequences, making for a more unsettled second act. It is a race for Arcati to undo what she has created, while a frazzled Charles remains stuck in his unenviable marital conundrum.
Erratic lighting and flying ornaments only add to its flamboyance. It is hectic, yet the hilarity is boundless.
While modern and revamped, this production successfully manages to retain the quintessential aspects that make you aware you are watching a classic. The audience were entranced by the stellar cast, laughter filling the intimate theatre. Blithe Spirit is a comedy that should, and will continue to be enjoyed by generations to come.
If you have been searching for an Absolutely Fabulous re-introduction to the world of theatre, then you’ve found it.
(Originally written as part of my Magazine Journalism assignment – October 2021) Featured Image Credit: Nobby Clark