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Blithe Spirit review – Duke of York’s Theatre

4 star review

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


Private Lives review – The Mill at Sonning

3 star review

With Present Laughter about to open at London’s Old Vic, here’s an opportunity to see one of the Noel Coward’s sparkling gems from the previous decade.

According to the programme notes for this production, Coward wrote Private Lives in four days during a bout of flu in Shanghai in 1930. I’m glad to report that the only coughing and spluttering at the Mill at Sonning is likely to be with laughter.

The story begins with two mismatched couples – Elyot and Sibyl Chase and Victor and Amanda Prynne – on their respective honeymoons in the same French hotel.

The big problem is that Elyot (Darrell Brockis) and Amanda (Eva Jane Willis) were previously married to each other and fate has put them in adjacent rooms.

Once the divorced pair set eyes on each other they realise they are still in love and instantly abandon their new partners to escape to Amanda’s flat in Paris (great set design by Michael Holt).

Willis is outstanding as the headstrong and glamorous Amanda. The sexual chemistry between her and Brockis’s caddish Elyot is spot on.

Coward’s insightful lines about marital politics and promiscuity seem timeless, but it does seem strange to hear the ex-partners reminiscing about the first time they hit each other.

Amanda and Elyot’s love-hate relationship is nicely handled in Act Two culminating in an expertly choreographed fight involving a gramophone record, a bunch of flowers and assorted cushions from the chaise longue.

There’s strong support too from the rejected spouses: Lydea Perkins as the “insipid” Sybil and Tom Berkeley as the straight-laced Victor.

Director Tam Williams makes inspired use of the musical talents of Celia Cruwys-Finnigan to create a suitably Gallic atmosphere with a selection of accordion songs that include cleverly reworked versions of Toxic and Tainted Love.

Noel Coward would surely have approved.

Private Lives is at The Mill at Sonning, Oxfordshire, until 3 August