“Blithe Spirit”, a comic play about death and the afterlife by Noël Coward is currently showing at Richmond Theatre, prior to moving to the West End from the 5th March to the 11th April at The Duke Of York Theatre.
Noël Coward wrote the play in six days and within five weeks it was on the stage, which is a pretty extraordinary feat. It opened initially in London in 1941 at the Piccadilly Theatre and went on to achieve huge popularity, mainly because it was considered to be light relief from the war.
The set is splendid – an elegant, book-filled living room in Kent and the story is based around Charles and Ruth Condomine, both married for the second time and showing elements of strain because of Ruth’s insecurity about Elvira, his first (dead) wife.
Charles, a socialite and novelist is looking for material and “tricks of the trade” for his next book. So he invites a well known clairvoyant to join them for a séance. The psychic is Madame Arcati, played wonderfully by Jennifer Saunders, who massively steals the show. She is perfect in the role of an eccentric, jolly-hockey-sticks type woman whose stage presence manages to create laugh after laugh. She bursts onto the stage all hot and sweaty, with her arms flailing and petticoats showing. Her mystic outfits, grey greasy hair and wide eyed look are all part of the breath of fresh air she manages to deliver on stage (including those cold gusts of wind from the various ghosts).
Alarmingly she inadvertently manages to recall the materialisation of Charles’s first wife Elvira, played by Emma Naomi, the most beautiful ghost you will ever see. Very sexy in her floaty tulle, bathed in a pale grey blue light, playing a Tinkerbell-esque mischievous role and causing untold havoc in the household.Edith, the maid, who is first onto the stage, played by Rose Wardlaw is brilliantly funny. Sadly I don’t have any photos to show of her – especially in the last scene when she is centre stage.
It’s an antiquated play and a little misogynistic, pitting women against each other and warning of the misery of the midlife marriage crisis, however, given Noël Coward was a confirmed bachelor with many female friends and homosexual, it is most definitely worth ignoring all of that and just enjoying the play for the spectacle (spectre) that it is. A fun few hours suspending reality and enjoying the splendid scenes on stage. The ghostly elements are very well done and marvellously supported by brilliant lighting effects (Howard Harrison) and an explosive ending as Charles inevitably unravels under the pressure.
Directed by Richard Eyre
Photos by Nobby Clark