Theatre Royal Bath – until 6 July 2019
There is something particularly satisfying in seeing a well-made play click together as well as it does here. Noel Coward famously penned Blithe Spirit in six days while on holiday, and saw it playing on tour a little over five weeks after first sitting down at his typewriter to work.
For a piece crafted in a blaze of frenzied activity, it’s plotting couldn’t be tighter. How many plays today, with their litany of workshops and literary managers feel quite so tightly constructed? It’s not in truth a ‘great’ play, as one see’s Private Lives, but as the original patrons had to climb over boards in Blitz strewn London to see its premiere at the Piccadilly it more than fulfils its function as a great divertissement.
Richard Eyre’s luxurious production for the Theatre Royal Bath summer season highlights this even further. It screams its inevitable West End transfer, from Anthony Ward’s scrumptious towering library set to the casting of national treasure Jennifer Saunders as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati. Star casting can sometimes take a little bit of a beating but this is how to do it writ large.
If her first entrance almost invites an entrance round (one that thankfully wasn’t forthcoming) the eyes barely leave her whenever she is on stage. We all know what a fantastic comedy actress she is, what took me by surprise a little is how much a creature of the stage she is. Without over-egging it she musters laughs from her every utterance and finds that sense of the physical absurdity – legs akimbo on the sofa, or buried under the coffee table – that one expects to see in her most famous creation, Eddy. It’s a performance that both gives the audience what it wants without tipping the balance away from the rest of the piece.
For, in reality, the play is about suave author Charles Condomine and the complications that arrive for himself and his second wife Ruth when a séance brings back his dead first wife Elvira. For while Ruth brings the stability and comfortable life of middle age, Elvie is the glitz, glamour and danger of a younger man. Coward, just turned 40 at the time of writing, must have been aware of his ageing boy wonder tag and tackled the fear and regret inherent in the artist coming to a crossroad. The final act can be seen as misogynistic, but if one views it in a kinder light, it could be argued that it is a call for an artist to abandon both his youth and his stifled middle-aged slump and forge a new path for himself.
As Charles, Geoffrey Streatfield brings the lightness of touch and a way with a barb that would have marked him out as a leading man from another era. His sparring with second wife Ruth, the luminous Lisa Dillon, is a highlight, though Dillon is far too glamorous in her stylish wardrobe, also designed by Ward, to convince that their days of glitz are behind him. As first wife Elvira, Emma Naomi at first seems a little marooned around the clipped tones and saddled with a terrible wig, but comes into her own as the play goes on, a sensual presence that makes Streatfield’s delight in seeing her again, an obvious one. Along with a scene-stealing turn from Rose Wardlaw’s maid, the performances are a constant delight.
It’s a defiantly old-fashioned evening, the curtain comes down at the end of scenes and John Leonard’s sound design is a little too on the nose, but it is also a guaranteed crowd pleaser. It’s not going to change your life but for a chance to see a national treasure and to wallow away from the pressures of the real world for a couple of hours, Blithe Spirit ticks all the boxes.
Blithe Spirit plays at Theatre Royal Bath until the 6 July.