Harold Pinter Theatre – until 6 Nov
Written and premiered in the early 1940s while WW2 raged on and the prospect of losing a precious loved one at short notice felt like a very real possibility, Noël Coward’s ghostly comedy is, perhaps not surprisingly, the first of ‘The Master’s plays to be seen in the West End post-pandemic. To be fair, Richard Eyre’s Theatre Royal Bath revival was playing, with most of the current cast, at the Duke of York’s when everything shut down in March 2020, so was ripe for reopening. Here it is again then, in a different venue, and maybe with an added piquancy and relevance.
The ostensible centrepiece of the production remains Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati, the medium who conjures up Elvira, the dead wife of sceptic novelist Charles Condomine, much to the consternation of his current wife Ruth. Saunders is magnificent: this heroically eccentric woman is absolutely convinced of her own powers, and is genuinely affronted by the indifference and mockery of the posh Kent brigade she’s confronted with in the Condomine household. Got up like a Blyton-esque Head Girl gone to seed, she’s predictably hilarious, but Saunders also projects a wounded pride that lingers in the mind after the laughs have faded.
This Arcati’s delight at encountering another person with “the gift” (the Condomine’s fabulously bizarre, awkward maid Edith – Rose Wardlaw in a surprising, scene-stealing turn) is oddly touching, and the resemblance between the two women – an insight I’ve never encountered in any earlier staging of the play – makes for a satisfying symbiosis.
The performance of the night though turns out not to be Saunders, nor Madeleine Mantock’s impressively assured West End debut as a ravishing, unusually sexy Elvira, nor even Geoffrey Streatfeild handling Charles’ coming apart at the seams with incredible panache. In what is generally considered to be the least rewarding of the four lead roles, Lisa Dillon spins comedy gold out of insecure, passive-aggressive Ruth, eternally in unfavourable comparison (literally, as it turns out) to her more exotic predecessor, driving every scene she’s in.
Proof that the greatest actors also make the best comedians, and also something of a Coward specialist (Design For Living at The Old Vic, Present Laughter at the NT, the Kim Cattrall Private Lives in the West End), Dillon brings a nervy charm and fragile elegance to the role, blending just the right notes of realism and camp (watch her flounce out of the room clad in dark glasses and a chiffon scarf leaving her husband to frolic with his phantom wife), this is a lesson in high comedy playing. Janie Dee’s Ruth was, for me, a highlight of the 2014 Angela Lansbury revival: Dillon turns out to be even better.
Elsewhere, Eyre’s production, played out on a handsome set by Anthony Ward that feels a little too big for the Pinter’s stage, and exquisitely lit by Howard Harrison, is a frustrating mix of inspired insights and an inability, or unwillingness, to let the Coward text speak for itself. It feels about twenty minutes too long, the use of incidental music is way too strident, and the pace drags considerably in the last half hour before the interval. Given that the last occupant of the Harold Pinter was Sonia Friedman’s presentation of a trio of exciting, diverse new plays and talent (Walden, J’Ouvert, Anna X), Blithe Spirit feels a bit like a retrograde step, theatrical comfort food. That said, it’s maybe what many people feel that they want right now.