Like that saying about never being more than six feet from a rat in London, there should probably be a theatrical adage that in the West End you are never more than six years from a production of Blithe Spirit.
This latest invocation of Noel Coward’s supernatural comedy stars Jennifer Saunders as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati. (Back in 2014 the role was played by the legendary Angela Lansbury – here’s the interview I did with her at the time).
From the moment she enters, removing her cycling cloak to reveal enormous sweat patches around her armpits, Saunders owns every scene she’s in. Yet it’s a cleverly nuanced performance that counterbalances the play’s more farcical elements. Despite Arcati’s idiosyncrasies, Saunders never loses sight of the fact that the oddball occultist takes her work extremely seriously.
The story takes place in the living room of Charles and Ruth Condomine’s country pile in Kent. The home’s rural setting is made even more obvious with the sound of mooing as the curtain rises. The upper floor of Anthony Ward’s impressive set is dominated by an immense bookcase that rises up like a cathedral.
Author Charles (Geoffrey Streatfeild) has invited Madame Arcati over to hold a seance so he can secretly gather material for his next novel. However, the medium inadvertently raises the ghost of Charles’s former wife, the beautiful and mischievous Elvira (Emma Naomi), whom only her former husband can see and hear.
The supernatural special effects are kept simple, but the seance scenes conjure a genuinely eerie atmosphere.
As Ruth Condomine, Lisa Dillon is a joy to watch as she quietly seethes with jealousy that Charles is still under the spell of his first wife. She also gets the biggest laugh of the night with a sparkling one-liner in the second act.
Rose Wardlaw deserves a special mention for her energetic and amusing turn as the Condomines’ hyperactive maid, Edith.
In short, Richard Eyre’s lavish production ticks all the boxes you’d want in this Coward classic. And Saunders is ab fab.
Blithe Spirit is at Duke of York’s Theatre until 11 April