Theatre Royal Bath – until 6 July 2019
Jennifer Saunders is well used to conjuring up a cast of bizarre characters for her TV sitcoms. So channelling the ghost of the late, great, Margaret Rutherford, for her appearance as eccentric clairvoyant Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit for a revival at Theatre Royal Bath is a breeze.
Noël Coward’s whimsical comedy was knocked out in just six days. Yet, despite the speed, Coward created one of theatre’s most enduring, iconic and dottiest of oddalls who is loved by actresses (usually of a certain age) and audiences alike.
In the early 1940s Coward, and perhaps his protagonist too, writer Charles Condomine, found themselves going through a midlife crisis. The playwright was struggling with the advent of both middle age and a fear, quite rightly as it turned out, that his style of writing and performing, was falling out of fashion.
And Condomine is also wistfully rueing the passing of time. His first wife, Elvira, had been sparkling and fun, and life had been bright and carefree. But the past five years married to the pragmatic Ruth had been sobering, lifeless and dull.
Perhaps his yearning for the good old days, seen through rose tinted spectacles, was the catalyst for the mayhem to come. Blithe Spirit plays to Saunders’ strengths although, despite becoming a first time granny recently, she is surely too young for the part?
Yet she triumphs, running riot with her stock grimaces and knowing glances, demonstrating her immaculate comic timing and flaunting her irreverent kookiness. The whole, over-the-top performance, aided and abetted by a terrible wig, ageing make-up and wonderful, Rutherford-inspired frumpy clothes, is rewarded by laughs-a-plenty.
But, funny as she is, there are periods without her and her absence is more than filled by Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Condomine, an admirable hysteric. One may argue that life can be intolerable when constantly nagged by your spouse. But imagine being harangued and pestered by your dead partner… for eternity?
Charles Condomine only has himself to blame. He wants the inside track on the tricks of a psychic’s trade for a new murder mystery he’s writing. So he invites the neighbours, sceptic GP, Dr Bradman, and his gushing wife, to make a foursome with him and his rather grounded and cynical second wife, Ruth.
They await the arrival of the barking mad medium, Madam Arcarti, and it’s not long before she makes her grand entrance.
There are a few enjoyable party tricks in the production, as you’d expect. The comedy boasts an illusion consultant who, I assume, is responsible for giving Anthony Ward’s impressive set supernatural powers.
They start with a levitating table during a seance, and the arrival, from the other side, of first wife Elvira, and they end in truly spectacular style.
After an initial shock Charles gets used to having two wives, much to the chagrin of the furious Ruth.
Elvira is mischievous and flirtatious. She wants her husband back – by any means necessary.
Saunders is outrageously good but then so are the rest of the cast.
She upstages them, of course, but every role in this timeless comedy is so beautifully written that everyone gets a chance to shine.
Rose Wardlaw’s super turn as parlour maid, Edith, is an example at how good Noel Coward was at writing characters. She must be a delight to play.
Edith does everything at the double-quick, tearing around the Condomine’s Kent house like a pocket dynamo, tripping up, over, and into things, precariously carrying trays of drinks, and her unique way of talking is a hoot.
Its a very physical, supporting role but just as outlandish, bizarre and eye-catching as the leads.
Meanwhile Lisa Dillon and Emma Naomi are on top form as Charles’s two sniping, jealous wives.
If I could look into Madam Arcati’s crystal ball I think I would see a West End transfer on the cards for Richard Eyre’s playful production.
Not that I’m psychic or anything….
Blithe Spirit runs at Theatre Royal Bath until July 6.
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