The Spirit Has Returned

Staff Reporter (22 September, 2021)

Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati takes that role and squeezes every last laugh out of it

48148©Nobby Clark

Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit is being revived for the umpteenth time, and quite rightly so, writes Michael Holland.

Novelist Charles Condomine invites the local clairvoyant Madame Arcati to his home to conduct one of her legendary séances in order for him to take notes for his current book. It was all a jolly jape until Elvira, his first – and very dead – wife appears as an apparition that only he can see or hear. The ghostly scene is set for farcical fun.

Charles, his wife Ruth, and their friends the Bradmans had already decided clairvoyants were scamming charlatans before the arrival of Madame Arcati, but after a few Dry Martinis to dilute all negative thoughts they agreed the eccentricities of Arcati made the evening a lot of fun. Except, of course, Elvira had not returned for their amusement but to kill off Charles and bring him over to the spirit world. What on earth could go wrong?

Elvira and Charles ©Nobby Clark

Well, just about everything possible. The crossed conversations caused confusion between Charles and Ruth, who thought he was going mad, but once she saw a vase ‘floating’ across the room she realised there was now three people in this marriage…

Ruth wants Elvira gone because she knows that all the love Charles once had for her is returning, but Elvira, looking very Monroe-esque, lures Charles with spectral love-making so that he does not want her to leave. 

To solve this ménage à trois complication Ruth calls Madame Arcati back to exorcise Elvira. The fraudster is as surprised as Ruth when told that she actually summoned up a ghost, but still declared she would have a go at getting rid of her.

‘Where is Elvira now?’ she asks.

‘My husband’s driven her into Folkestone,’ replies the desperate housewife.

There are a lot of laughs and Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati takes that role and squeezes every last laugh out of it. It was as if director Richard Eyre had let her loose to go full-on Saunders, opening the door to a One Goes Mad on Stage performance that steals the show.

Of course, everyone else does great at supporting her, even Rose Wardlaw as Edith the hyperactive maid, there for no reason other than because in Coward’s world everyone has to have a working-class servant to belittle.

Blithe Spirit is Coward putting a spotlight on the fakers and mocking the believers by showing the utter absurdity of ghosts and talking to the dead, but done with comedy. And done very well.

Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, London SW1Y 4SW until November 6th. Times: Mon – Sat 7.30pm; Thur & Sat matinees 2.30pm. Admission: £20 – £125. 

Booking: www.atgtickets.com/shows/blithe-spirit/harold-pinter-theatre/

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