WORTH A LOOK?: ****
RUNTIME: 140 minutes (including 20-minute interval)
WHEN?: Matinee Saturday 18 September, booking to 6 November 2021
The last time we saw Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit the part of clairvoyant Madame Arcati was played by the late great Peggy Mount at Guildford’s Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in 1989.
- Read on for reasons including how Absolutely Fabulous star Jennifer Saunders plays the Mme Arcati role
Back in 1989 Saunders was one half of comedy duo French and Saunders and enjoying considerable success with a BBC show of that name. Mount’s was always going to be a tough act to follow but Saunders is at the top of her game and this part of an idiosynchratic medium initially invited to stage a seance by its host so he can observe her ‘tricks of the trade’ for his latest book is a gift for the author and star of Absolutely Fabulous.
It’s a more subtle performance than Mount’s and reminds us instead of the late great Margaret Rutherford who originated the role in the 1941 play before continuing to play the part in the film.
Saunders gives us a masterclass of physical comedy with inappropriate body scratching, fart jokes and a bizarre elaborate routine as she prepares to go into a trance.
Coward wrote Blithe Spirit in 6 days while on holiday in Portmeirion and it premiered out of town in Manchester just 5 weeks later before a triumphant West End run at the Piccadilly Theatre during World War Two.
Spirit is the story of author Charles (here played by the reliable Geoffrey Streatfeild) who with new wife Ruth (Lisa Dillon, Present Laughter, Old Vic) mistakenly summons up the spirit of his former wife Elvira (a magnetic Madeleine Mantock making a sultry West End debut) during the aforementioned seance.
Elvira can only be seen by Charles and he begins to enjoy her presence which infuriates Ruth. Special mention to Rose Wardlow, also making her West End debut, as servant Edith who makes the most of her few lines and had the audience in stitches on multiple occasions. Hers is a name to watch for in future and this one of the most remarkable West End debuts of the year.
Director Richard Eyre brings the action to a dramatic head with a dismantling of the set and a pleasing aerial display however we thought the incidental music choice was jarring.
We were surprised by how easy it was to get tickets for this show and we’d urge fans of Saunders to take this chance to see her in a role for which she could not be more perfect.