No summer season at the Theatre Royal Bath could claim to be authentic without a Noel Coward, a Bernard Shaw or an Oscar Wilde. This year, artistic director Jonathan Church has lighted on the master with a star-studded production of Blithe Spirit. Coward is said to have written the wonderfully inventive supernatural comedy in just six days in 1941.
Richard Eyre, a regular visiting director at the Theatre Royal, is at the helm, and in lead is Jennifer Saunders. She is tailor-made for the role of the dotty, but deadly serious, medium Madame Arcati. She may be bonkers but this doesn’t diminish her obvious delight in reuniting supercilious novelist Charles Condomine with his roguish yet seductive late wife Elvira.
Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Charles is a mix of haughty conceit and sheer panic, while a marvellously manipulative Emma Naomi, as Elvira, is as attractive a ghostly garb as it is possible to imagine. The spirit world equivalent of the eternal triangle is completed by Lisa Dillon as current wife Ruth – at times as tough as nails and at others touchingly vulnerable.
While Saunders is more agent provocateur than referee between husband and bickering wives, there is no doubt that Madame Arcati takes her trade seriously. Her attire may carry the hallmarks of eccentricity, complete with multi-coloured turban and dangling wooden beads, but her roaring delivery, when attempting with increasing exasperation to contact the other side, suggests a hardness of heart that is only occasionally softened by her unexpected clairvoyant triumphs.
Eyre and his cast are particularly adept at developing the absurd. In a somewhat overdone reoccurring joke, Charles’s caustic remarks to the ‘invisible’ Elvira are wrongly taken by Ruth as referring to her. But this becomes particularly mischievous the morning after Charles and Elvira’s ghostly love-making.
On the darker side, the production successfully teases out Coward’s decidedly ironic and misogynistic view of the fragile allure of marriage. This is never more evident than in the stunningly staged final denouement. The play’s glib view of death no doubt also sat better with its 1941 audience, but does not resonate quite so comfortably today. None of these factors, however, inhibit Rose Wardlaw as parlour maid Edith, largely nervous but in the end vital to the play’s ghostly solution.
Designer Anthony Ward’s elegant living room set, complete with mandatory French doors and marble fireplace, disintegrates both symbolically and with considerable style right at the end.