Theatre review: Blithe Spirit

Jennifer Saunders' performance as medium Madame Arcati may be the comic performance of the year, says John Nathan


You know what to expect with a Noël Coward comedy. The cocktails and cigarette holders; the sartorial elegance and the crackling, clipped dialogue with which his upper classes speak and eventually eviscerate one another.

With his 1941 classic comedy about successful novelist Charles Condomine (Geoffrey Streatfeild) who researches the technique of mediums by inviting one to hold a séance in his home, you also know what to expect when Madame Arcati enters the drawing room of the Kent country house in which the action is set.

Angela Lansbury’s version seen in the West End six years ago mixed well-heeled authority with artsy exoticism. And her swoons and trances had just the required amount of fakery about it.

But, now, to the long, illustrious list of Arcatis who have gone before, from Margaret Rutherford’s to Judi Dench’s in a forthcoming movie version, we can add the one delivered by Jennifer Saunders. And it is unlike any that came before — and more surprising.

For a start, there is nothing well-kept about her Arcati. The normally bejewelled and coiffured medium is this time a dowdy spinster who one imagines lives in a house overrun by cats. Instead of being surprised by the success of her ritual there is an integrity to the barking-mad eccentricity that knows things could as easily go right as wrong.

It is a performance in which Saunders is in complete vocal and physical command. The dance she uses to reach “the other side” has shades of some public school theatrical tableaux depicting the natural world in general and chickens in particular.

And her instructions are delivered with plummy authority punctuated by involuntary wind-breaking eruptions. Words are sometimes more like burps.

Everything else in Richard Eyre’s sumptuous production exists to support this consummate performance it seems. Certainly nothing can eclipse it.

Still, Emma Naomi as the deceased wife Elvira who expired seven years previously while laughing to comedy on BBC radio (so not The Now Show) is an alluring, mischievous ghoul, while Lisa Dillon as the living spouse is impeccably outraged. Streatfeild meanwhile exudes the smug chauvinism of his period, class and gender.

Coward’s script feels a bit windy these days, but the cynicism about marriage is still sharp enough to shock.

But the main reason to go is Saunders’s Arcati, probably the comedy performance of the year.

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