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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Blithe Spirit
Duke Of York's Theatre   Spring 2020

A man whose first wife died is happily remarried when the ghost of Wife #1 appears. Only he and we can see her, and she has mischief in mind.

Noel Coward's comedy is a very funny play, and if performed with any sense of comic style, can be a total delight. Even an uninspired low-energy production like this one can't completely ruin it, and if you go in with low expectations and no sense of what's missing, you might have a mildly enjoyable evening.

It used to seem sometimes that there were two directors named Peter Hall. The one who directed classics for the RSC and National Theatre was brilliant, but when he did just-for-the-bucks commercial work all inspiration waned.

I wonder if there are beginning to be two Richard Eyres. What's missing from this Blithe Spirit is exactly the firm and inventive directorial hand we would expect from Eyre, guiding the cast to the play's full comic potential.

Instead, with a couple of partial exceptions, we get what feels like an early-rehearsal-period run-through satisfied with getting the words right and not bumping into the furniture.

This revival is being marketed on the name of Jennifer Saunders, playing the mad medium whose sťance inadvertently raises the ghost. Madame Arcati is one of those extended cameo roles that give an actor the opportunity to steal a show by being uninhibitedly hammy (Think of Malvolio or Lady Bracknell).

She even gets a scene, as she charges herself up to go into her trance, where the stage direction might as well read 'She does some weird and funny stuff.'

But Saunders, who seems to have been left on her own by the director to find both the character and the shtick, comes up with nothing and just walks through the part.

Something similar seems to have happened to Emma Naomi's ghost. It is absolutely essential to the play that Elvira be irresistibly beautiful, sexy, intelligent and naughty. These are qualities the right actress might naturally bring to the role or that even a miscast actress could be guided to feign effectively.

Emma Naomi doesn't allure or flirt or beguile or pout or flash with sexual danger. She is so hardly even there that I found myself being distracted by the fear that her very fake-looking wig was slipping off.

I want to make it clear that I am not criticising the actors here, but the director. When more than one actor in a production is bad, and they are bad in the same way, they were either miscast or misdirected, told to do the wrong things or left to flounder about trying to find the right things without guidance.

You can particularly see this because others in this cast did find find a character and a comic tone to play.

Acting honours here go to Lisa Dillon in the usually thankless role of the second wife. Ruth is essentially the straight man throughout the play, the target of Elvira's pranks and insults and with little to do but react to everybody else's wit.

But Dillon, clearly on her own, sees that reaction can be funny, and that the line responding to what was supposed to be the laugh-getter can get an even bigger laugh. It is she, rather than Elvira or the shared husband or even Madame Arcati, who will hold your attention in every scene.

As with almost all of Noel Coward's plays, any man playing the lead has to compete with memories or myths of the playwright's own voice and manner in the role.

Geoffrey Streatfeild is not an instinctive comic, and you will start the evening missing the sense of laid-back high style the play seems to want.

But he does gradually introduce an attractive alternate characterisation as Charles gets over his immediate shock and begins to warm to the idea of astral bigamy with a mix of boy's-own-adventure excitement and genteel lechery.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Blithe Spirit  - Duke Of York's Theatre 2020

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