Blithe Spirit at the Harold Pinter Theater

As the theater accelerates in its return (for now) from the pandemic that evenly sank it in March 2020, the audience and stage reunion now appears to present its own range of antibody responses. By no means immune, at a minimum, from the threat of continued disruption, I have seen producers and directors display two types of reactions, expressed both explicitly and implicitly. The first type is applying relentless creativity to problem-solving: seeking to do what is possible as they struggle against ever-changing and difficult restrictions. This type of creative antibody wave was not widespread, but for some it increased sharply in the summer of 2020 and again in the spring of this year. Examples of those die-hards who not only found a way to perform, but also came up with something completely new and enjoyable, include Lambco Production’s Reinette apple and other productions at the Garden Theater; the external efforts of the Maltings Festival; and Flight at Nicholas Hytner’s Bridge Theater. Nimbly fighting to stage something, these troupes of troops demonstrated artistic innovation while battling endless obstacles and frightening risks. The other type of antibody response is characterized by pretending nothing ever happened, while apparently masking the anxiety of ramping up production under the current circumstances by doing everything so directly that it’s almost visible. . The cover of Noel Coward by Sir Richard Eyre Joyful spirit seems to fall squarely in the latter camp.

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

Of course, Noel Coward’s writing is hilarious (if you’re into 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 prankster and the prank he creates takes you on a race that speeds up so fast you have to hang in there. Humor relies on finding a ‘did that just happen?‘connection with the audience who need to move at a pace to catch you off guard. So it’s baffling that Eyre seemed determined to bring the most adagio of tempo to his production with awkward and prolonged curtain drops between scenes in the middle of the two acts. Adding a good 15 more minutes to the advertised runtime, the old-fashioned painted exterior of the country house was lowered for a while, giving hope that there would surely be a new painting to see when will be high – but barely a single cup of tea moved across the set as the new stage opened. In fact, the best before-and-after piece of physical comedy was undertaken (by Saunders, naturally) in a much shorter blackout that then revealed a much more noticeable difference on stage.

Madeleine Mantock, making her West End debut as Elvira, moved like a magnificent sylph and performed her role wonderfully. Anthony Ward’s costumes, along with Howard Harrison’s lighting, created a particularly pleasing depiction of the ethereal afterlife. Geoffrey Streatfield (Charles) and Lisa Dillon (Ruth) delivered witty and solid performances, as did the entire cast. Still, it seemed like Eyre didn’t have a lot of ideas for this production other than making it look rather dated, which Coward never really was. It’s one thing not to want to brown the lily, but that doesn’t mean you have to keep it in a dusty bell.

Fooling around with the occult as mocking fun in your social circle and leading to ultimate unintended consequences is not a dated trick. Hilarity should indeed ensue when we see the inner worlds of a late and current husband and his wives revealed in Coward’s script. However, there was something too tempered, too polite in this production when the story needs its underlying emotional fragility also evoked for the tension that will build and give way to belly laughs. It seems that this production slowed down because its antibodies sought to protect it with adornment; too concerned about its author, its time and a big budget which needs to find a good commercial point so that it finds the essential spirit of the piece.

3 star review

Comment from 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 the ghost of his first wife, Elvira, during a shoot. When she appears, visible only to Charles, and determined to sabotage her current marriage, life – and the hereafter – becomes complicated.

Distribution and creation
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 Ms Bradman and Rose Wardlaw as Edith. The production brings together a distinguished and multiple award-winning creative team, led by former National Theater director Sir Richard Eyre with design by Anthony Ward, lighting by Howard Harrison, sound by John Leonard and illusions by Paul Kieve.


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