A classic comedy with Jennifer Saunders in one of the leads was always going to be popular and tickets are selling fast for Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit at the Theatre Royal in Bath
Jennifer Saunders, who is perfectly cast as eccentric spirit medium Madame Arcarti in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, now on at the Theatre Royal in Bath, could have simply trotted out her regular comic persona and stolen the show. The real treat however is that she has made the effort to create a whole new character. Debbie Ward saw the show at Brighton on the first week of its run…
Madame Arcati is a likeable bohemian who, having been written off as a batty fake in the early scenes, actually makes a spirit appear during a séance at the house of Charles Condomine. The ghost is Charles’s ex wife Elvira, which proves rather awkward as he has a new wife, Ruth now on the scene.
When I saw the show in Brighton there was a cheer from the audience as Saunders entered, her hair wild and those great cheekbones of hers smeared with rouge.
Sure, there are a few hints of tweedy characters you may recognise from Saunders’ back catalogue of sketches but she has dialled them down a notch and the show is all the better for it.
Saunders gives Arcati a faintly Scottish burr and some fun physical quirks – tongue lolling, baggy stockinged legs akimbo. The medium is amusingly uninhibited even in the scenes when she isn’t conducting a séance and it’s easy to warm to her delight at having successfully unleashed something more than flatulence into Charles and Ruth’s home.
Not that Saunders’ Arcati is the only comedy highlight – Rose Wardlaw plays inept maid Edith like a young Mrs Overall from Victoria’s Wood’s Acorn Antiques.
Blithe Spirit is a wordy play and some of the arguments between Charles and Ruth get a little wearing but Lisa Dillon sets up Ruth well in the early scenes, downing dry martinis apparently relaxed in her own skin, until, that is, Charles’s sexy former wife shows up, visible only to him.
All the action takes place in the period interior of a grand house and the staging is traditionally naturalistic. The curtain even goes down between scenes, a fairly unusual occurrence in modern theatre.
The lighting deserves a special mention as it realistically represents different times of day through a set of French windows and gives Elvira a suitably spectral tint of blue. Blackouts are used to jump time in places – the lights coming up on the comic aftermath of Arcati’s spirit-summoning trances.
The set team meanwhile have my sympathy for the mess they have to clear up nightly following some dramatic effects in the closing scene.
It’s obvious that the comic medium aspect of Blithe Spirit influenced the film Ghost and there’s a nod to this at the curtain call with a musical burst of Unchained Melody.
A new film of the Noel Coward play with Judi Dench in the Madame Arcati role is due out this year. For those who’ve seen this Saunders version, she will have big shoes to fill.
Blithe Spirit is on at The Theatre Royal in Bath from Tues 4 – Sat 8 Feb.
The Theatre Royal, Saw Close, Bath BA1 1ET. Tel 01225 448844. theatreroyal.org.uk
Words: Debbie Ward. Photos: Nobby Clark