Blithe Spirit Is More Ham Dram Than Ab Fab
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It's a familiar plot: just as soon as you've wined, dined and settled for someone, your sexy ex turns up on the scene and makes things awkward for everyone. Seventy years on from its record-breaking wartime run, Noel Coward's light comedy Blithe Spirit haunts the West End again.
Originally headlined by matinee idol Rex Harrison and the incomparable comic actress Kay Hammond, the star attraction this time around is Jennifer Saunders. As the medium Madame Arcati, she unconsciously brings back to the land of the living novelist Charles Condomine's late and lithe wife Elvira; Ruth, the current Mrs C, is not impressed and plots to send her rival back to the afterlife.
Saunders does well with the dated script to bring out the humour and — despite director Richard Eyre allegedly asking her to tone down the physical comedy from the tour in Bath — still camps it up too far otherwise. Overall more ham dram than Ab Fab, her over-the-top style of acting does little to endear us to one of the play's more sympathetic characters (Judi Dench will be taking on this role in the upcoming film version).
As the warring wives, Emma Naomi (as Elvira) and Lisa Dillon (as Ruth) are fun to watch but Geoffrey Streatfeild's Charles has little range and, vocally, comes across as a terrible Colin Firth impression throughout.
Eyre keeps the wordiness of the original intact which unfortunately buffs out the two-and-a-half running time to often little effect. Limp direction weighs down this light comedy but, thankfully, there's a real diamond in the cast. Rose Wardlaw plays the effervescent maid Edith to perfection with glorious clowning and is at the heart of almost all of the sparse chuckles here.
As related by Ruth, Elvira died laughing. It's unlikely any audience seeing this will suffer the same fate.
Blithe Spirit, Duke of York, St Martin's Lane, WC2N 4BG, £20-£150. Until 22 April
Last Updated 12 March 2020