Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 9 November 2021
I once took a student nephew to this Coward masterpiece, and the thrill for me was that he didn’t know there was a g—–. Until there was. Therefore for a rising generation, with aunts who wisely buy them tickets, I shall unfashionably eschew spoilers, even if the publicity lets one out.
In any case, for me this time the thrill was different, and unexpected. It was the TV-star casting of Jennifer Saunders as the dotty village psychic Madame Arcati. I admit I had not been expecting much: there have been generations of Arcatis since 1941, since from Margaret Rutherford onward ageing comediennes of distinction have been queuing up for the role, longing to drape themselves in mad scarves and beads, pedal up the hill to the suave Charles Condomine’s dinner party seance on a trusty bike (“down with your head and up with your heart and you’re over the top in a flash!”), and then in a series of show-stopping tirades lecture the company on the afterlife and enact a dramatic trance. I have seen about six over the years, and didn’t expect to enjoy Saunders: loved Ab Fab, but expected exaggerated fan-friendly mugging and too much recognisability.
I was wrong. In Richard Eyre’s briskly directed production she stands out, even alongside Geoffrey Streatfeild’s expertly Coward-y Charles, Lisa Dillon’s brisk (and at times, later, even touching) Ruth, and Madeleine Mantock as a rather wonderfully nimble, dancing, writhing, coolly-smoking sex bomb Elvira.
Saunders’ Arcati is draggled but not cartoonish: donnishly dishevelled, earnestly scholarly rather than exaggeratedly nuts. Legs akimbo, whether bossing the company into awkward table turning formation, wiping her crystal ball on her capacious bosom or dancing about speaking in tongues, she utterly inhabits and believes in the part. No Edina Monsoon surfaces even for a moment. No scarves either, just a paisley robe and hat I rather fancy myself.
So, pleasure: it’s not new to most of us, this “Improbable Farce” Coward knocked together in six days by the seaside: we oldies know all too well its dryly regretful observation of the farce that is passion, the dangers of memory and the inevitability of matrimonial irritability. We enjoy the magnificent galleried library – one of those stage sets the audience longs to move into, almost property-porn. We enjoy the elegant sparring, whether Private-Lives style with Charles and Elvira or all too recognisable in his spats with Ruth. There are dim lights and eerie blue-white on platinum effects, and one total blackout. And – let me say this without an iota of a spoiler – director Eyre gives full rein to the final scenes of Rose Wardlaw as the housemaid. Full rein. Hurrah. Take your nieces and nephews.