Julian Eaves reviews Richard Eyre’s production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit now playing at the Duke Of York’s Theatre London.
Duke of York’s Theatre,
10th March 2020
Yes, here is yet another production of Noel Coward’s perennially popular yarn of seance-holding folk, bohemian middle-class professionals and a few ghosts. Born out of 1941’s low ebb of the Second World War, and filmed – beautifully – in colour just three years later, it is pure escapism and, in the right hands, charms the socks off any audience.
Well, almost any. A mere few years ago, the producer here, the esteemed and hugely experienced Lee Dean, gave us this very same story in the West End with the veteran Angela Lansbury as the ‘star turn’ of the medium, Madame Arcati. It did very well. And now, he’s back with the same play, if not the same production.
Here, the director is Richard Eyre – an immensely experienced and wise interpreter of just about anything (although Coward does not feature beyond one title in his programme CV). His designer (set and costume) is the equally tried and trusted Anthony Ward, with lighting by the also very, very well known Howard Harrison and the just as senior sound designer, John Leonard. Paul Kieve is the consultant illusionist on the project. When the curtain rises on their set, the first thing I thought was ‘wooden’: rafters, beams, bookshelves forever, spiral staircase, panelling and doors… all of solid wood. And yet, at exactly the same moment, the same adjective suggested that it might – somehow, in some way – also be applicable to the acting that we were about to see. I have no idea why this thought occurred to me – was the look just ‘too’ perfectly tied to the early 1940s, was it all just too fussy and detailed and swamping? Whatever the cause, I was filled with dread.
When the cast came onstage, one by one, my worst fears were confirmed. Everyone seemed to fall into the same stiff, generalised gestures and poses, using the same false, strangulated voices, and completely missing very nearly every chance to take me off guard. Produced in conjunction with Theatre Royal Bath and Jonathan Church Productions, this perhaps intended as theatre for the novice, or for those who prefer their ‘acting’ to be simple and easily comprehensible at all times, where thinking is not required.
If you believe you will be readily amenable to being ‘entertained’ in this way, then you will surely see nothing wrong in joining the ranks of those who sat and knowingly cackled or chuckled at this lightweight amusement: but there are no belly laughs, no farcical madness, nor hysterical riotousness to be had in this version. It is ‘echt’ well-behaved, polite and superficial provincial theatre. I don’t suggest for a minute that there is anything particularly lacking in that style of theatrical merchandise, but is it necessarily something that will want to spend West End prices on?
That will be for you to decide. Meanwhile, you can wonder at Jennifer Saunders (Arcati) burying her comic genius underneath six feet of a meandering, possibly Caledonian accent and Su-Bo eyebrows. You can gasp when Lisa Dillon (the author’s wife, Ruth) manages to raise just about the only spontaneous laugh of the entire evening: (LONG PAUSE…..) ‘He’s driving her into Folkestone’. Your eyes will pop to see Geoffrey Streatfield (the author researching spiritualists) do a kind of cross between Michael Denison and a piercingly unpleasant, very nasal tenor. You will marvel at the misplaced street-cred of Emma Naomi (the ghost wife accidentally summoned back into troublesome life, Elvira). And you will feel for Lucy Robinson (the indulged but pitied neighbour, Mrs Bradman) and Simon Coates as her insipid spouse, the local GP, Dr Bradman (no relation to the originator of the famed railway timetables book, surely?). Finally, serving – and hammily spilling – the drinks is Rose Wardlaw’s cardboard cut-out, Rose.
If you want to spend two or three hours in the company of these, then nobody is going to stop you. I would advise caution, however. The production is full of good intentions, but instead of paving the way to comic heaven it leads us – without quite ever getting there – down into a torpid and tired hell.