In David Lean’s 1945 film of Noël Coward’s ghostly comedy “Blithe Spirit,” Margaret Rutherford memorably embodied the role of local spirit guide Madame Arcati — but she was given a run for money by her surrounding players. These days, the balance has shifted. It’s now a star vehicle, hence Angela Lansbury’s assumption of the role on Broadway and in London’s West End. That partly explains why Jennifer Saunders (“Absolutely Fabulous”) is headlining the latest revival. But anyone expecting a comedian to overbalance the proceedings should think again: Saunders is anything but medium.
Since her husband Charles (Geoffrey Streatfeild) has decided that his latest novel will be a light-hearted thriller about a medium, Ruth (Lisa Dillon) has arranged for Madame Arcati to come round for the evening to their comfortable home in the Kent countryside. They will play along while she conducts a seance for them and their friends while Charles secretly gathers information about the tricks of the trade.
Nothing, however, goes as planned. This is Charles’s second marriage and it’s showing signs of being not in the phase of “first fine careless rapture.” When not managing the hopeless new housemaid Edith (Rose Wardlaw), Ruth is looking for reassurance and given to statements of denial about his racier first wife, Elvira, including “I have never for an instant felt in the least jealous of her.” So it’s hardly surprising that when Madame Arcati unwittingly summons Elvira (Emma Naomi) back from the dead, sparks fly.
Coward famously wrote the play in six days. It undeniably lacks the depth of his masterpiece “Private Lives,” but the succession of neatly plotted twists and the final unexpected reveal create a well-oiled comedy. Although contrived, it should glide by on Coward’s trademark drop-dead witty dialogue that the principals use to get themselves out of — and amusingly into — trouble. It is simply not wound tightly enough to build to the heat of a farce, which is why it is so puzzling that director Richard Eyre’s cast play it as if it were one.
Farce demands stereotypes, and Dillon sets the tone by moving almost instantly from crisp to uptight. Her shrill manner pushes Streatfeild to become brusque. Thus by the time conniving Elvira appears and gleefully throws spanners into the works, the pitch rises so high that the humor is often stripped out because the actors turn stern witty exchanges into frantic argument. Odder still is the fact that everyone distances themselves from their characters by overstating their class status so heavily via strangulated vowels.
The exception to all this overplaying is Saunders. Wonderfully costumed by Anthony Ward in shapeless, frumpy tweeds, a memorably lank grey wig and comically inept make-up, Saunders reveals a woman supremely indifferent to traditional ideas of so-called femininity. Her Arcati only tips toward exoticism when she dons a colorful costume specifically for the seances.
Unlike everyone else, Saunders is playing not a “character” but an individual. She doesn’t stint on comedy — she lands every laugh in a deliciously gauche, gruff manner — but it’s all in the service of truth. Her Arcati is entirely serious and never ridiculous. When Dillon’s angry Ruth stops midway on her own line “If your first husband suddenly appeared from the grave,” and gives Arcadi a look that strongly suggests the idea of the awkward medium ever marrying is absurd, it’s suddenly shocking. In response, Saunders’ silent dignity is unexpectedly moving.
Coward wrote a song in which he spoke of having “a talent to amuse,” and the production certainly achieves that. But it should be so much more. Too much of the wit is flattened because the spirit veers towards the blistering. The clue is in the title: it should be blithe.