After multiple manifestations at Theatre Royal Bath and a southern UK tour, Noel Coward’s deathless comedy hits the West End in a deft, but dragging production by Richard Eyre.
Coward wrote it in six days while holidaying in Wales to try and break his writer’s block and, inevitably, it’s about a writer with writer’s block. Charles – a charming Geoffrey Streatfeild – is not particularly happy with his second wife Ruth, a fastidious and buttoned-up Lisa Dillon.
She’s bothered by the legacy of the first and late Mrs Condomine, the beautiful, louche Elvira. As research for his next book, Charles invites a medium to conduct a seance. But the eccentric Madame Arcati accidentally brings Elvira back from the dead to haunt Charles. Emma Naomi makes the most the role, though it’s an underwritten part.
The marriage of sound, lighting and set in Eyre’s production really stands out, especially when things take their supernatural turn. Anthony Ward’s drawing room has a mezzanine library hanging high above, which comes to life in the closing moments. Brilliant work from Howard Harrison’s lighting gives Elvira’s ghost a pale, otherworldly look, the unnatural white-ish blue, contrasting with the warm yellow of the fire-lit living room. Excellent blackouts allow the cast, and the furniture, a chance to rearrange themselves during spectral shenanigans.
Eyre’s production is ramped up to maximum: the velocity of the dialogue, the shouting, the stage effects. The long scenes of bickering badinage soon get tiresome, especially as the pitch gets higher and volume gets louder. And yet, despite all the billy-o, the play also drags. There’s a constant mismatch between the lines pitched to get a laugh, and the lines that actually land one.
Then on shambles Jennifer Saunders’ Madame Arcati, costume replete with sweat patches from her strenuous uphill cycle ride, a tendency to flatulence, and a recurring need to air her own nether regions with a fulsome flapping of her skirts.
Madame Arcati is a gift to actors, especially those with as acute and ingrained a sense of comedy as Saunders. Her Arcati has a solid, earthy quality. Her thick eyebrows, lank hair and sensible shoes suggest someone who’s spent the day in the potting shed rather than engaging in “ectoplasmic manifestations”.
Saunders conveys a sense that Arcati’s ability to contact the dead is just as bewildering to her as it is to her clients.
Coward wrote the play to be a distraction during the unlimited grimness of the war, a mockery of death when death was everywhere. These days, its comedy of manners – the midlife male, a stale marriage and the worrisome lot of the genius writer – feels dry and dusty, and although Saunders summons some three-dimensionality, the rest of the production, while entertaining enough, has as much substance as a spectre.