Melissa Blease reviews Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, starring Jennifer Saunders, on at Theatre Royal Bath
until 6 July

Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit: is it a smart, analytical metaphor about the machinations of marriage, or does it ask audiences to consider their stance on the afterlife beyond these earthly realms? Should Coward have endured critical attack when the play first premiered (July 1941) for making light of death as the Second World War raged on? And how, exactly, does one make a Martini so dry that your house guests develop an enduring thirst for frequent top-ups? Oh, I shouldn’t be thinking any of this; I should, instead, be waxing lyrical about Richard Eyre’s box-fresh revival of one of Coward’s best-loved plays, which opened Jonathan Church’s Summer Season at the Theatre Royal Bath and stars Jennifer Saunders in the pivotal role as eccentric medium Madame Arcati

And indeed, there’s much to wax lyrical about: Anthony Ward’s fabulously detailed set, for example (the drawing room at the epicentre of a quintessentially English country house). That script: crisp, fresh and laden with all manner of expeditious quips, nimble badinage and elegant ripostes. Charles Condomine’s ghost-wife Elvira’s floaty tulle dress that put me in mind of Strictly Does Halloween… But this isn’t the spooky case of the theatre critic who can’t follow the plot; my lack of engagement with Coward’s enduringly popular ethereal farce has more to do with the production’s overall lack of spirit than my failure to channel concentration. 

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, author Charles Condomine invites local spiritualist and medium Madame Arcati to conduct a séance following dinner at the house he lives in with his second wife Ruth. Sceptical of clairvoyant-related carryings on but keen to research inspirations for his latest novel, Charles blithely (ha!) fails to consider how the spooky shenanigans might unfold. But Madame Arcati inadvertently invites the ghost of Charles’ deceased first wife Elvira (the one in the floaty dress) to join the party… and for a short, uncomfortable few days, Charles, Ruth and Elvira become a maniacal ménage à trois that results in a rather dire denouement.

Lisa Dillon and Geoffrey Streatfield offer textbook-perfect embodiments of Charles and Ruth Condomine, with lashings of the kind of clipped, precise delivery that makes the multiple hints of bristling, peeved dissatisfaction even more cacophonous. Neither Simon Coates nor Lucy Robinson as the couple’s old friends and fellow dinner guests Dr and Mrs Bradman, however, become known to us, somehow; their roles may not be pivotal, but it’s a shame their presence is never really felt. Rose Wardlaw puts plenty of pantomime into her role as Edith the maid, and while Emma Naomi is a super-silky, super-cool Elvira, she fails to make the unbelievably strange circumstances she finds herself in believable; if you’ve never seen the play before, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Elvira is set to turn out not to be a spectre at all, and is in fact an actor playing the role of an actor playing the role of a ghost. 

And then we have Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati: a sturdy, tweedy English Coward-era country lady, more Mrs Doubtfire than charismatic grand dame (for more on this, I refer you to Margaret Rutherford’s iconic characterisation of the same character in David Lean’s 1945 film version) and relying far too heavily on over-emphatic physical comedy than understated wit or subtle substance for laughs. 

As Coward himself once said of an early 1970s West End revival of one of his other plays, “it’s a pleasantly watchable rendition, nicely bridging the dull gap between cocktails and supper” – and that’s sort of where I’m at with this one, this time around. But if you make sure your pre-theatre cocktail is spirit-liftingly dry, it might go some way to making up for the slightly less powerful on-stage mixology going on here.

Main image: Geoffrey Streatfeild as Charles, Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati, Lisa Dillon as Ruth, Simon Coates as Dr Bradman and Lucy Robinson as Mrs Bradman in Blithe Spirit. Credit: Nobby Clark