Wednesday, 22 September 2021

REVIEW: Blithe Spirit at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Paranormal comedy in the 1940s British drawing room can be a difficult thing to pull off with a modern audience, but Richard Eyre’s production does a marvellous job of bringing Blithe Spirit to life. 

It is a fairly traditional production, but don’t think that that means the laughs are any less genuine. All around me in the stalls the impeccable comic timing of all of the actors was inspiring muffled giggles and outbursts of laughter that the actors had to pause to see out. 

Many of the funnier moments work so well because they are punctuated with movement - characters who catch each other's eyes at the perfect moment, and who covey much of their contained frustration through passive-aggressively finding something to do with their hands. 

It is Edith (Rose Wardlaw), the maid, who steals the show from the get-go with her super-speed approach to her job and her difficulty in completing any of her tasks without a meaningful struggle. She opens the play with her attempt to place the drinks tray on the table with a very taxing squat, perfectly setting the comic tone for the rest of the play.

The focus of the play is on the marriage(s) of Charles (Geoffrey Streatfield), as the ghost of his beautiful first wife Elvira (Madeline Mantock) at first figuratively, and then literally, haunts his second, more sensible, marriage to Ruth (Lisa Dillon). All three actors play off each other brilliantly, with the power lying squarely with Charles’s wives.

As a character, Charles could be very dislikable if this power balance wasn’t the case. As he increasingly turns against his wives, he is also increasingly powerless, meaning by the end you feel sorry enough for him you can forgive the more hateful outbursts. Streatfield plays up to the comedy of a man who is severely out of his depth in his absurd attempts to make the insane situation normal. 

Both Mantock and Dillon are a force of nature in their own ways and are immensely entertaining to watch as the two wives battle it out with a level of energy that never drops. Dillon particularly stands out in the earlier scenes, as she adds depth and comedy to Ruth’s lines with her delivery of every phrase, and it’s hard not to find yourself on her side as she quickly becomes the only reasonable character in the piece.

Jennifer Saunders is, of course, hilarious as Madame Arcati - she brings the character to life with everything from her accent to her physicality and perfectly disturbs the sanity of the prim and proper atmosphere of Ruth and Charles’s home. It is perfect casting that brings out many of the laugh out loud moments and makes the comedy of the play more accessible to non-Coward fans in the audience. 

Similarly, there is real joy in watching how Anthony Ward’s set itself goes from a perfectly realised British country home, complete with stacks of books and cushy furnishings, to the site of a paranormal encounter. It is not only beautifully designed, but it also comes to life impressively in the final scene. Throughout the play, in fact, the ghostly effects - from floating scarves to slamming doors - whilst funny, are believable enough to catch you off guard. 

Ultimately this production of Blithe Spirit is exactly what it should be: great fun. The energy rarely drops, aside from the rather long pauses in-between some scenes, and Eyre leans into both the spectacle and comedy of the piece at every opportunity. If you’re after an easy and entertaining night at a gorgeous West End theatre, then Blithe Spirit is well worth a look. 

Review by Jasmine Silk 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Q8, Stalls | Price of Ticket: £64.50
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