‘Blithe Spirit’ returns to the West End in 2021 after its original run was cut short due to the pandemic. Most of the original cast returns, including Jennifer Saunders.
If you’re going to bring another revival of Noël Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ to the West End just a few years after Dame Angela Lansbury, World Treasure, took on the scene-stealing role of Madame Arcati, you’re going to need some canny casting. Cue Jennifer Saunders appearing here as the medium who Charles and Ruth invite over for japes, but who then inadvertently invites Charles’s dead first wife Elviria to stay.
Warring couples like Charles and Ruth are frequently haunted by their past relationships in Noël Coward’s comedies (see ‘Private Lives’). In ‘Blithe Spirit’, it’s literal. But the supernatural realm is basically just a bigger drawing room. Elvira’s spectral gatecrashing is an excuse for some drawn-out jabs at youthful delusions of romance.
While Madame Arcati is haplessly channelling Elvira and the spirit of a little girl with a cold, Saunders seems to be channelling Margaret Rutherford (who also played the character in 1945) with her scenery-chewing performance. She’s a robust bustle of beige knitwear, physical comedy and conspicuous quirks. It’s an off-the-peg ‘Ab Fab’ sketch: funny but a little too familiar.
As haplessly clumsy maid Edith, Rose Wardlaw’s ‘Exorcist’-inspired possession generates some proper laughter towards the end of the play. As Ruth, Lisa Dillon – who does a lot of heavy-lifting here – turns the line ‘He’s driving her to Folkestone’ into sparkling comic resignation. She catches the absurd mundanity.
Generally, though, Richard Eyre’s staging is only fitfully amusing rather than laugh-out-loud. It’s pitched awkwardly between farce and pastiche. The usually excellent Geoffrey Streatfeild mugs his way through the play as Charles. There’s a kind of relentless shout to everything that deafens Coward’s sharper lines.