Review: Blithe Spirit (Theatre Royal Bath)

Jennifer Saunders stars as Madame Arcati in the revival of Noël Coward’s comedy

Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati
Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati
© Nobby Clark

Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit has historically been a regular favourite all over the West End, Broadway and beyond. And with the opening of this revival, alongside news that Edward Hall will be directing a new film of it starring Judi Dench, that shows absolutely no signs of abating.

The comedy lives or dies by its Madame Arcati, played here by Jennifer Saunders. But while the character of the ageing, eccentric, bike-riding medium has potential for making even the most lacking in funny bones chuckle, the play itself, and its gender politics, do feel dated.

We meet Charles and his second wife Ruth on an evening where they invite Madame Arcati round for a séance as research for Charles' new book. Instead of conjuring up a random ghoul for the night, however, Madame Arcati manages to accidentally bring back Charles' first wife Elvira, who died seven years previously. And not just for the night either: she seems to have arrived indefinitely. It paves the way for living wife Ruth to get monstrously upset and jealous, and dead wife Elvira to get very mischievous. Soon the two women begin to flicker around Charles; one a nagging bore, the other a sly temptress. Where Charles is initially delighted at the prospect of two wives ("we might all have a very jolly time" he says with a leery glance), he quickly realises the nightmare (not one, but two awful wives! Disaster!).

There probably are ways of dealing with the tawdry women clichés in the play, but director Richard Eyre doesn't focus so much on that than on making sure Saunders gets it pitch perfect in her scenes. And for the most part, she does. As opposed to Angela Lansbury's graceful, floaty, batty-but-sophisticated turn in 2014, Saunders is a kind of fusty, grey-haired frump, who wears moth-eaten woollens and robust tights. She is very funny, sucking her lips and sighing out her cheeks, and making her eyes widen hugely at the prospect of a very good sandwich.

And Coward does offer up some very, very funny – and often very dirty – lines, which are all delivered beautifully by Saunders and the cast ("I had my first ectoplasmic manifestation when I was five." "Cycling stimulates me!"). Geoffrey Streatfeild's journey from together human being to unravelling at the seams is very good and Lisa Dillon is just the right amount of uptight. Emma Naomi as the lithe returning spirit is very sensual, but really doesn't have much of a part to play with. It's Saunders who ultimately steals the show.

Anthony Ward's fairly astonishing designs have the drawing room of the Condomine's Kent house looming over the action, with a tower of bookshelves heading off into the ceiling. The designs are lavish and luscious and are matched beautifully by Paul Kieve's illusions, which are subtle but effective.

Though Saunders manages to keep the laughs up in her scenes, overall they don't come thick and fast, which is really what they should do in this comedy. Still, it's worth watching to see Saunders in her element, clutching her enormous bag filled with odd bits and bobs and commanding spirits from the beyond.