Coward tapped into the spirit of the times

NOEL Coward wrote this play during 1941, one of the darkest years of the Second World War.

With death, destruction and bombs raining down, one might be forgiven for thinking that a play featuring dead people wouldn’t have gone down all that well.

On the contrary. Spiritualism had become very popular during the inter-war years, with thousands of the bereaved seeking solace and some meaning to the random cruelties of existence.

Coward undoubtedly tapped into this yearning for comfort and therein lies the success of this perennial piece.

Jennifer Saunders as the gloriously batty Madame Arcati is tailor-made for the part, bringing large doses of Dame Margaret Rutherford to augment her already Ab Fab credentials.

A vision of unloveliness with bloomers billowing like a Spanish galleon’s topsails, she coaxes or rather commands any spirits in the vicinity to show themselves without delay.

The trouble is that one in particular is only too glad to oblige, namely Elvira (Emma Naomi) who is the lately departed first wife of host Charles Condomine.

Geoffrey Streatfeild’s hapless husband therefore finds himself with two wives – the present one, Ruth (Lisa Dillon), plus the ghostly and vaguely ghastly Elvira.

This then is the gag that runs like a loo roll wrapped around a dog’s leg in a Dulux advert. Coward milks it for it’s worth, introducing all manner of possibilities, such as the notion that if Charles could only engineer his own death, he would be reunited with his lost love.

Unfortunately, that would mean being unfaithful to his present Mrs Condomine. That realisation alone is enough to drive any chap to an early grave.

Blithe Spirit is Noel Coward at the peak of his powers, tuning into a popular obsession but garnishing it with plenty of spicy conundrums at the same time.

To coin a phrase, this is an absolutely fabulous feast of frivolity and unashamed whimsy that most certainly stands the test of time. It runs until Saturday (February 1).

John Phillpott

 

 

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