Review - Blithe Spirit starring Jennifer Saunders at the Duke of York's Theatre
In 2013, Richard Eyre directed the great Lesley Manville in a harrowing production of Ibsen's Ghosts at the Almeida that subsequently transferred to the West End's Trafalgar Studios. The ghosts in that play are metaphorical, summonsing the parental legacies of a dead father on his son.
Now, Eyre tussles again with the spirits of the dead in Noel Coward's 1941 comedy Blithe Spirit, but this time they take physical form when the late wife, and subsequently (mild spoiler alert) the current wife of a writer come back to haunt and taunt him, and each other. But in swapping tragedy for comedy, Eyre strains too much for comic eccentricity, and as a result, the comedy threatens to congeal instead of being liberated by it.
That's partly a function of the extreme characterisation of Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati, the medium whose work at a seance summonses the women. The play was last seen in the West End when Angela Lansbury used it as a vehicle to make a long-overdue return to the London stage (after an absence of over 40 years) in 2014, and then aged 88, stole the play and our hearts by simply being there.
Though Saunders generates some goodwill of her own as a beloved TV star and comedy writer (though it's best to gloss over her contribution as the book writer of the flop Spice Girls musical Viva Forever), it's not her fault she's not in the iconic mould of Lansbury, who was able to merely exist in a bubble of charm. Saunders has to add lots of strenuous business, and it didn't help that she kept reminding me of Ann Widdicombe, either.
Fortunately, though, Arcati is not the entire play, and Eyre is on more solid ground with Geoffrey Streatfeild, a superb actor in plays both classical and contemporary, as the beleaguered husband, and Lisa Dillon and Emma Naomi as his current and former wives respectively. This is classic Coward territory of warring spouses and misunderstandings of communication between them.
Eyre's production - and the wives themselves - achieve liftoff, literally so, in the second half when Anthony Ward's set and Paul Kieve's illusions provide a memorable comic finale.
The production is booked into the Duke of York's Theatre for a run of just six weeks as a filler in-between Touching the Void that recently closed there and back-to-back openings of The Doctor (transferred from the Almeida) and The Pillowman that will follow it. It's an odd new model for the West End, but demonstrates both the pressure on available London theatres and accommodating the schedule of its star attraction.
Blithe Spirit tickets are available now.