THE gleeful excitement of Jennifer Saunders playing Madame Arcati is a sight to behold and Bath audiences have a second chance to experience it before Coward’s Blithe Spirit moves into London.
The Richard Eyre production opened in Bath last June, and returns until Saturday 8th February, and overall it’s a delight. A few changes have been made since last summer’s outing, not all of them successful.
At its heart is Saunders’ version of the batty medium, immortalised on film by Margaret Rutherford in 1945, portrayed countless times in the interim, and now finding its ideal interpreter in Saunders. We all knew she could do the comedy, but she brings a touching sincerity to the role, as well as a wholly recognisable and loveable rural character.
Blithe Sprit is about the really rather unpleasant Charles Condomine, a writer who steals ideas from people he meets and shamelessly caricatures them. He’s invited Madam Arcati over for dinner as grist to the mill, and his (second) wife, and the local doctor and his wife, are sworn to seriousness when the old girl sets up a seance, and even goes into a trance.
Charles and the second Mrs Condomine, Ruth, have one of those brittle but socially successful marriages beloved of upper class early 20th century plays, but the aura of the first Mrs C, Elvira, is always present. When her presence gets a bit more concrete, thanks to the ministrations of the medium, all hell breaks loose.
Set in a converted barn in Kent, one new aspect is the entr’acte music, not credited in the programme and a real mistake. The song that famously brings Elvira back from the other side is Irving Berlin’s Always, here played much more quietly than in the summer 2019 version. This is the only music that this play needs.
Geoffrey Streatfeild and Lisa Dillon play the Condomines more sharply, but Emma Naomi retains the wonderfully skittish nature of Elvira, and young Rose Wardlaw has honed her Edith for maximum comic effect.
Saunders is a revelation. Whether you loved or despaired of her AB Fab and more rough-edged comedy personae, this Arcati is a gem of comic timing and keen physical perception. Just brilliant!
Photographs by Nobby Clark