Brighton Year-Round 2020
Directed by Richard Eyre with Set and Costume Design by Anthony Ward and lit by Howard Harrison and Sound Design by John Leonard. Paul Kieve’s the Illusion Consultant, with Associate Director Sarah Meadows.
You can always tell an outstanding production by how it shifts a show forever.
Noel Coward’s 1941 Blithe Spirit follows the uproarious Present Laughter which it echoes at several plot-points. Like that play’s recent revival at the Old Vic, this production directed by Richard Eyre changes things. Just a few telling details. If you think you know it, see this at Theatre Royal, Brighton. Or where it tours to.
Jennifer Saunders is the lynchpin Madame Arcati whose séance – cynically invited to help novelist Charles (Geoffrey Streatfield) with jargon for his latest novel – goes horribly awry. The unsuspected reason for that we don’t discover till near the end and it’s a tribute to Coward’s generosity as well as mastery of craft.
Still, the séance leaves Charles with a smoking ghost: his siren first wife Elvira (slinky Emma Naomi) determined to claim him back from his second bossy, less sexy wife Ruth, played by the superb Lisa Dillon.
Everything in this production purrs. Anthony Ward’s outstanding set – a drawing room with a minstrel gallery holding a vast bookcase – is a strikingly detailed 1930s affair. And at the end there’s a lot more striking about it. There’s mantelpiece stage left, and a table used for the séance next to it. Upstage left a double-doored Arts and Crafts mock-medieval affair opens onto a corridor, whilst inside an upright piano centres the upstage with a pugilist portrayed rampant from about 1805 topping it. Stage right there’s a window full of blowy mischief and of course a sofa and chairs, a writing bureau downstage from the window. The Persian rug and chattels seem innocuous. They do however rise to the occasion.
Ward’s also responsible for the quietly uproarious costume design: diaphanous moonstone white and blue for any stray ghosts, a magnificent shapeless russet for Arcati, and for women royal blue and green dresses.
Given the ghosts and ghostly goings-on, it’s crucially lit by Howard Harrison with a truly mischievous sound design by John Leonard including Bernard Hermann quotes and other noirish extravaganzas touched in out of pure hocus. Paul Kieve’s the necessary Illusion Consultant, blissful with an empty attack-shawl.
The chemistry between Streatfield and Dillon is one of the energy poles blistering and bickering into a triangle when invisible (to Dillon’s Ruth) Naomi’s Elvira apparates to Charles only. Streatfield is able to project the hurt-boy-petulant that lurks in many Coward heroes, masking a deeper egomania. Here Charles is less brilliantly juggling than say Present Laughter’s Gary Essendine but still has to juggle wives. There’s less of the creative artist – despite his nominal novelising – more the harassed and martially-divided husband. Streatfield’s exasperated haplessness is ideal. He doesn’t even overdo an outrageous act by one wife.
Dillon too echoes Mrs Essendine, though again she’s deliberately less brilliantly coping, more conventional and middle-class. Her horizons extend to a comfortable rather passionless marriage, with little purr-noises ghosted just once as a kind of homage to artificial passions she felt in the past. It’s an ungrateful role Dillon gratifies in. She also has the best line. No spoilers but it invokes Folkstone.
Never more so than when dealing in ever-spiralling disbelief as the invisible and visible worlds collide: a chair, a soda-syphon suddenly doing something unbelievable. None of this ends well for her. Her shreds of bourgeois dignity stick to the innocent and roughly-treated Arcati. Dillon’s imperious way with Saunders brings a frisson of delight.
More though it brings one of those glints of genius attending this production. Saunders invests the bumbling Arcati with sudden crestfallen pathos. Her look when she’s told the truth of her initial invitation or an opinion of her powers, is quietly devastating. Saunders etches a pathos that touches tragedy.
Elsewhere she’s upside down with white bloomers on display as she comes to with the lights up on a scene crying spiritual havoc. Saunders’ timing and the crab-ways walk across the stage is matched against her fumble and frolicsome foraging for cucumber sandwiches. She baulks with a masterful difference to merely batty Arcatis. There’s substance, outrage and an almost childish delight in ectoplasmic evidence.
Rose Wardlaw’s maid Edith matches Saunders in comic walks and bizarre mis-timings, as well as some astonishing voices. It’s a gem of a part which Wardlaw invests with magnificence. Her normal presence is unnervingly funny. That’s only the quarter of it. Wardlaw’s one to watch.
There’s some luxury casting too in Simon Coates and Lucy Robinson as Dr and Mrs Bradman. Coats is solid mahogany avuncular, a no-nonsense 1930s doctor convinced the bin might be right for Charles but anxious to observe the niceties: he is after all middle-class and a friend. Robinson manages that strained jollity and deadly pall of the thwarting thwarted woman Coward was to perfect in his film treatment of Still Life: Brief Encounter.
Naomi’s diaphanously sexy Elvira was killed off by laughing too hard at a BBC programme whilst recovering from pneumonia, caught after a little adultery on a motor launch. It’s certainly not killed off her sex-drive though, as Ruth discovers unwittingly finding her husband with his hair blown all over. Later she’d guess this was a blow-dry-job from the beyond, the nearest Elvira can get to having sex with her former husband this side of the divide. And Naomi moves diaphanously too, minxing up and down just out of reach of all but Charles, and able to reach anyone she likes. She might not be the most erotic of Elviras, but inhabits a shadowy amorousness so as not to appear too solid flesh – a siren strained through an ether net. Naomi works it suggestively.
The denouement conventionally riffing off – and upending – the one in Present Laughter, here takes on new meaning and something happens. You’ll have to see this, and what happens to the set in those final moments. It’s what turns a superb revival into a masterpiece.