Review: Blithe Spirit, Harold Pinter Theatre, London ★★★☆☆

18 months after it was forced to close before its opening night, the transfer of Noël Coward’s comedy Blithe Spirit is finally opening in the West End, with Jennifer Saunders reprising her role as the highly eccentric clairvoyant Madame Arcati.

The production, directed by Richard Eyre, has moved house during lockdown – from the Duke of York’s Theatre to the other side of Leicester Square and its new home in the Harold Pinter Theatre.

The fantastic set design by Anthony Ward sees the stage filled to the rafters by an enormous bookcase which is divided halfway up its dizzying height by a hallway from which Charles Condomine (Geoffrey Streatfield) descends to the stage via a spiral staircase to join his wife Ruth (Lisa Dillon) and their maid Edith (Rose Wardlaw) in the living room of their home in Kent, prior the arrival of their guests Dr Bradman (Simon Coates) and Mrs Bradman (Lucy Robinson) and their entertainment for the evening, Madame Arcati.

Jennifer Saunders (centre) as Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit. Photo: Nobby Clark

There is slightly too much of the slapstick comic about Saunders’ initial entrance as Madame Arcati, and she comes one dress-flapping flatulence joke away from an out-and-out comparison with Brendan O’Carroll in Mrs Browns Boys. Thankfully, these jokes are mostly dispensed with following the initial seance which sees an unwelcome visitor joining the group in the form of Charles’ deceased first wife Elvira (Madeleine Mantock).

Lighting by Howard Harrison and makeup combine to bring Elvira to life in a ghostly hue – even her fingernails and toenails glow with the afterlife. Mantock, making her West End debut, is fantastic as the coy and amorous Elvira, whose arrival sets in motion a chain of unfortunate, and hilarious, events.

Streatfield and Dillon play the role of the upper-middle class couple engaged in marital strife and perpetual oneupmanship to perfection, with Streatfield portraying Charles with a soft-willed nature that becomes pitiful as his woes increase.

Madeleine Mantock and Geoffrey Streatfield in Blithe Spirit. Photo: Nobby Clark

Despite fine performances across the cast, particularly from the leads Streatfield, Dillon, Mantock and Saunders, there is something amiss at the heart of this production. It’s not that Saunders or the rest of the cast hit any off-notes, other than the initial overwrought toilet humour, it’s rather that they are acting in two slightly different productions. Saunders’ Madame Arcati is playing in a mildly chaotic, sketch style production, while the rest of the cast are playing a straighter, more-traditional comedy production in which Saunders’ version of Madame Arcati doesn’t quite fit. It’s the latter style that takes hold for most of the play, with a production that feels like a study in pre-war theatre.

It feels too that there is a missed opportunity to ‘update’ the play, such in the way that the Old Vic’s 2019 production of Coward’s Present Laughter did. But while Coward’s play, and its modern production, feel dated, there is still joy to be had in the misfortunes and (double) marital strife of Charles and his two wives, and in the misfirings of Madame Arcati.

Jennifer Saunders in Blithe Spirit. Photo: Nobby Clark

Despite the production’s flaws it is still very funny, increasingly so as the play progresses and Saunders finds her stride. She owns the stage and holds the audience in the palm of her hand, playing the role of someone who can’t read the room to great effect – no less than when her glee at her triumph in summoning Elvira causes Ruth further despair. The illusions by Paul Kieve are also a treat, with a few moments of real ‘magic’.

It is a production that brings joy, smiles, cheers and laughter from the full Harold Pinter Theatre auditorium. A pre-war comedy bringing post-lockdown joy – who could complain about that?