Review of 'Blithe Spirit' at Harold Pinter Theatre
Noel Coward’s comedy about death and spirits has been playing at theatres around the world since 1941. Enjoying immense success during a time of war when death hung over every household like a persistent mist, it tapped into our innate fascination with the supernatural to tell us more about our present circumstances. Not only was it been adapted into a musical and a feature film, but it also continues to remain a popular choice for adaptation by theatre companies around the world. I remember seeing a version of Blithe Spirit myself in the University of Delhi, wherein the story had been contextualised to an upper class contemporary Indian society. This universal relatability of the text and its characters is an ode to its timeless nature, still drawing packed audiences to date. In this production at the Harold Pinter Theatre, Richard Eyre’s direction and Anthony Ward’s set and costume design give new life to Coward’s text, backed by a formidable star-studded ensemble of performers who wring out his sharp-witted writing to the fullest.
The story plays out at the house of Charles Condomine (Geoffrey Streatfeild), a writer whose scepticism towards the supernatural has led him to a bit of a writing block. To gather material for his book, he invites the local (self-proclaimed) seer Madame Arcati (Jennifer Saunders) to his home to perform a séance. Joined by his wife Ruth (Lisa Dillon) and family friends Dr. Bradman (Simon Coates) and Mrs. Bradman (Lucy Robinson), the séance doesn’t quite go according to plan and accidentally summons the spirit of Condomine’s first wife, Elvira (Madeleine Mantock). Condomine’s home and life are quickly turned into a game of cat and mouse as his first wife’s ghost torments him and his second wife to wit’s end. A series of unfortunate accidents, amusing confessions and emotional conversations follow, leading to hilariously disastrous attempts to restore order in their life.
Eyre’s direction places the emphasis back on Coward’s text through a judicious combination of action-led dialogue and character-led dialogue, bringing an appreciable rhythm to what is otherwise a long play. The treatment of text is as it was intended, set in an upper-class white English household, which makes one wonder how do 21st-century audiences connect with it at a level beyond their subliminal beliefs about ghosts and spirits. The ensemble delivers strong performances overall, each bringing out the character’s vibrant personality through their movement and presence on stage. Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Charles is hilariously confident and articulate in his awkward handling of the tiff between his two lovers. Lisa Dillon’s Ruth is precise and calculating, delivering a well-crafted performance that carries the conflict in the story.
Madeleine Mantock makes her West End debut as Elvira, bringing out the character’s capricious nature to the fore. Jennifer Saunders’ portrayal of Madame Arcati draws the laugh with her emphasis on physical comedy and wordplay. Simon Coates and Lucy Robinson provide good support as the bickering couple, allowing us to see Charles and Ruth’s relationship in a more positive light. Rose Wardlaw also makes her West End debut playing the inimitable maid Edith whose antics crack us up throughout the show.
Anthony Ward’s set design brings out the larger-than-life nature of Coward’s text through an immaculate replication of a mansion in Kent. Howard Harrison’s light design not only crafts the atmospheric presence of the piece but also demonstrates a clever use of on-stage lighting choices that make the action more realistic. The use of a moving spotlight to illuminate Elvira’s ghost is ethereal and beautiful, adding that extra touch that helps us believe more. John Leonard’s measured sound design adds to the overall high production quality of this show. However, it is Coward’s text that steals the show, his writing as funny and delightful eighty years later as it was when it first hit the previews.
To summarize, this production of Blithe Spirit promises to make you laugh at the absurdity of human life and our obsession with the ‘other’ world with its stellar performances and stunning technical production.
You can watch Blithe Spirit at the Harold Pinter Theatre till Saturday 6th November 2021. Learn more and book your tickets at https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/blithe-spirit/harold-pinter-theatre/
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 21st September 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★