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Blithe Spirit at the Harold Pinter Theatre | Review

As theatre accelerates in its return (for now) from the pandemic that sent it uniformly dark in March 2020, the reunion of audience and stage is now seeming to exhibit its own array of antibody responses. By no means free from, at a minimum, the threat of continual disruption, I’ve seen producers and directors display two types of reactions, expressed both explicitly and implicitly. The first type is to apply relentless creativity to problem-solving: seeking to do what might be possible as they struggle against ever-shifting and challenging restrictions. This sort of surge of creative antibodies was not widespread but, for some, rose up mightily in the summer of 2020 and again in the spring of this year. Examples of these dogged over-comers, who not only found a way to perform but came up with something altogether new and pleasing, include Lambco Production’s Pippin and other productions at the Garden Theatre; the outdoor efforts of The Maltings Festival; and Flight at Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theatre. Nimbly fighting to stage something, these troupers of troupers showed artistic innovation whilst wrestling with endless impediments and frightening risks. The other type of antibody response is characterised by pretending nothing ever happened yet seemingly disguising the anxiety of mounting a production in current circumstances by doing everything so straight that it’s almost conspicuous. Sir Richard Eyre’s revival of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit seems to fall squarely in the latter camp.

BLITHE SPIRIT - Madeleine Mantock (Elvira). Photo credit Nobby Clark .
BLITHE SPIRIT – Madeleine Mantock (Elvira). Photo credit Nobby Clark .

Of course, Noel Coward’s writing is hilarious (if you like that sort of thing) and Jennifer Saunders’ comedy as Madame Arcati is impeccable and worth the ticket price alone. But the reason Noel Coward is so funny is that he’s a wag and the farce he creates carries you away on a ride that accelerates so quickly you have to hold on tight. The humour relies on finding a ‘did that just happen?’ connection with the audience that needs to move at a rate to catch you off-guard. It is therefore bewildering that Eyre seemed determined to bring the most adagio of tempo to his production with clunky and prolonged curtain drops between scenes in the middle of both acts. Adding a good 15 minutes extra to the advertised run-time, the old-fashioned painted exterior of the country house was lowered for an age, setting expectations that surely there’d be a fresh tableau to behold when it was raised – yet barely a single teacup moved on the set as the new scene opened. In fact, the best bit of before-and-after physical comedy was undertaken (by Saunders, naturally) in a far shorter blackout and which then revealed a much more discernible difference on stage.

Madeleine Mantock, making her West End debut as Elvira, moved like a gorgeous sylph and occupied her role wonderfully. Anthony Ward’s costumes, together with Howard Harrison’s lighting, created an especially pleasing depiction of ethereal afterlife. Geoffrey Streatfield (Charles) and Lisa Dillon (Ruth) offered witty and solid performances, as did the entire cast. Yet it seemed like Eyre didn’t have much in the way of ideas for this production other than to make it seem rather old-fashioned, which Coward never really was. It’s one thing not to want to gild the lily, but that doesn’t mean you have to preserve it in a dusty bell jar.

Dabbling with the occult as a bit of mocking fun in your social circle and it leading to the ultimate in unintended consequences isn’t a dated contrivance. Hilarity should indeed ensue as we see the inner worlds of a husband and his late and current wives revealed in Coward’s script. Yet there was something too temperate, too polite about this production when the story needs its underlying emotional brittleness also conjured for the tension that will build and give way to belly laughs. It seems as if this production became sluggish as its antibodies sought to protect it with finery; too self-conscious of its author, his era and a big-budget needing to hit a commercial sweet spot for it to locate the play’s essential spirit.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

Novelist Charles Condomine and his second wife Ruth are literally haunted by a past relationship when an eccentric medium – Madame Arcati – inadvertently conjures up the ghost of his first wife, Elvira, at a séance. When she appears, visible only to Charles, and determined to sabotage his current marriage, life – and the afterlife – get complicated.

Cast and Creative
Madeleine Mantock as Elvira, Jennifer Saunders as clairvoyant Madame Arcati, Geoffrey Streatfeild as Charles Condomine, Lisa Dillon as Ruth Condomine, Simon Coates as Dr Bradman, Lucy Robinson as Mrs Bradman, and Rose Wardlaw as Edith. The production brings together a distinguished and multi-award-winning creative team, directed by former National Theatre director Sir Richard Eyre with design by Anthony Ward, lighting by Howard Harrison, sound by John Leonard and illusions by Paul Kieve.

BLITHE SPIRIT
STARRING JENNIFER SAUNDERS
DIRECTED BY SIR RICHARD EYRE
HAROLD PINTER THEATRE
16 SEPTEMBER – 6 NOVEMBER 2021

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Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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