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Jennifer Saunders is a hit as a Noel Coward-penned mystic 

by Adriene Corso (2020-04-06)

Blythe Spirit

Duke of York's Theatre, London

Verdict: Almost fabulous hocus pocus


Jennifer Saunders, as a Noel Coward-penned mystic dressed like the Queen on a weekend shoot, is mathematically certain to make you laugh. 

Although in the interval, the lady next to me did coo: 'Oh, Victoria Wood's very good isn't she?'

I didn't have the heart to correct her. It's a decent comedy seance, but not that good.

Coward bashed out Blithe Spirit - a chatty romantic comedy with a twist of the occult -in seven days while on holiday. It was a wartime distraction in 1941, and a jolly Covid-19 distraction in 2020.

Jennifer Saunders, pictured, plays Madam Arcati in Noel Coward's 1941 farce Blythe Spirit

You'll get his trademark wit, with ectoplasm and ghosts ('My wife's funeral exhausted her!'). Two couples - four non-believers - invite Madame Arcati (Saunders) round for dinner, essentially to laugh at her as she strokes her crystal ball and howls into the night.

But would you believe it, she actually ends up summoning the dead ex-wife of Charles (Geoffrey Streatfeild, giving us standard panto-style Coward).





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Cue farce, attempts to convince people of what's happening, and to banish the undead ex back whence she came. It's beautifully silly. 'How could having cheese for lunch account for my having seen my deceased wife after dinner?' 'Well it was very rich,' is the reply.

The cast in this production, first seen at Bath's Theatre Royal last year, puts in a decent shift, giving us taut Forties accents and loud expressions.

But it doesn't quite lift the play's baggy bits. Director Richard Eyre could have taken a pair of scissors to at least 30 of the two hours and 30 minute running time, and the attempts at stage trickery were pretty amateur. 

The cast in this production, first seen at Bath's Theatre Royal last year, puts in a decent shift, giving us taut Forties accents and loud expressions

Saunders certainly carries the night, but doesn't make her entrance for a good while. Once on stage, she's at full throttle: twitching and licking her lips after gags and throwing herself into brilliantly ludicrous 'trances'.

At one point she's upside down on the sofa, bloomers blatantly exposed. Simple glances had the crowd honking.

Lisa Dillon, as the frustrated second wife Ruth, adds much-needed comic value with her skittish eyes and hands, as does Rose Wardlaw, playing the maid who stomps and smashes around the house like a toddler. Her scenes with Saunders are up to French and Saunders standard.

Productions of this play come round as quickly as seasonal flus. Angela Lansbury gave a stonkingly good turn not long ago, and in two months Dame Bandar Judi Bola Dench will give it a go on film. If you haven't seen it already, perhaps don't start here.