Lloyd Evans

Jennifer Saunders is brilliant: Blithe Spirit at the Harold Pinter Theatre reviewed

Plus: a shallow, heartless, overpraised trifle at the Royal Court

Jennifer Saunders is brilliant: Blithe Spirit at the Harold Pinter Theatre reviewed
Jennifer Saunders (Madame Arcati), who uses little hand gestures and delicate flutterings of her clothes to draw our attention to her gastric problems, and Lisa Dillon (Ruth) in Blithe Spirit. Photo: Nobby Clark
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Blithe Spirit

Harold Pinter Theatre, until 6 November

Is God Is

Royal Court, unti1 23 October

Blithe Spirit is a comedy with the plot of a horror story. Charles, a middle-aged novelist, lives happily with his second wife, Ruth, but he accidentally conjures up the spirit of his first wife, Elvira, during a séance. He becomes the target of a ghostly murder plot. Elvira decides to bump Charles off and enjoy his company in the afterlife. The play was one of Noël Coward’s biggest hits and although the script is 80 years old, this production features intriguing new material.

The spiritualist, Madame Arcati, suffers from wind. She refers to her dietary anxieties several times and she mentions her dislike of red meat and roast pigeon. Jennifer Saunders (Arcati) uses little hand gestures and delicate flutterings of her clothes to draw our attention to her gastric problems. And though this is a curious detail to add to the play, it shows that the director, Richard Eyre, has investigated the script with fresh eyes and an inquisitive sensibility.

Arcati is often played as a batty old nuisance but Saunders takes her seriously and shows us a dedicated, intelligent professional who has very clear ideas about the service she offers. Fortune-telling and clairvoyancy are not part of her trade. She considers them fakery. She’s outraged when she learns that Charles had arranged the initial séance as a stunt to generate material for his next novel. Yet she can’t conceal her glee when she discovers that Elvira’s ghost has returned to the world of the living. This is the highlight of her career and she’s justly proud of her achievement. She does a little jig on the carpet to celebrate her triumph. But the jig is rather truncated because her joints are starting to stiffen up.

These deft little touches are brilliantly orchestrated by Saunders whose stage experience enables her to create an instant rapport with the audience. She’s supported by the crisply spoken Geoffrey Streatfeild (Charles) and the elegantly haughty Lisa Dillon (Ruth).

I saw the show with my 15-year-old son who was new to Coward’s world. He enjoyed it well enough but found the pacing sluggish compared with his normal YouTube fare. He considers ‘air-show near-misses and disasters’ far superior entertainment.

Is God Is had a short run in New York in 2018 and it now arrives at the Royal Court. The show is a tragedy of a peculiarly modern type. The programme notes reveal that the young author, Aleshea Harris, has written just two dramas, which have amassed four prestigious awards between them. This surfeit of gongs is likely to convince an apprentice writer that she has little left to learn about her craft. Hence this shallow, heartless and overpraised trifle.

It opens with twin sisters, Anaia and Racine, visiting their Mom on her deathbed. Mom informs the teenage girls that their father tried to murder them many years ago in a house fire. She wants revenge. But Anaia advises forgiveness. ‘Die in a peaceful state,’ she says to Mom. In the next scene, the forgiving Anaia has turned into a bloodthirsty psychopath. How come? No explanation is given. Anaia isn’t just a psycho. She’s stupid as well. She decides to rob a lawyer who has committed suicide in his office and she splits his head open with a rock, thus leaving forensic evidence that would convict her of a killing she hadn’t carried out.

The script is heavily indebted to whimsical movie-makers such as David Lynch and the Coen brothers but it lacks any artistry, depth or moral core. And it contains great screeds of first-draft dialogue that ought to have been cut. As the girls travel west, they seek more victims to attack and they stumble upon their father’s second wife. She becomes their next target. Why? Don’t bother asking. Next they meet two teenage lads who turn out to be their half-brothers. In the real world, these four characters would probably discuss their mutual family connections but instead they hold a lap-dancing session. The girls dress in revealing costumes and perform erotic routines for the boys. This weird scene is followed by more acts of grisly and under-motivated violence.

Finally, the murderous father arrives on stage and he struts around with an air of erotic masculinity. What for? This is the nutcase who tried to kill his kids. Again, no explanation is offered. And none is needed, really, because the play is just a rambling fantasy conceived in the overactive brain of a sadistic mischief-maker whose jottings haven’t been honed or shaped in the normal fashion by a script editor.

This play is an embarrassment to America’s dramatic heritage, and it’s sad to see a decent actor like Cecilia Noble (who plays Mom) stranded in such a vapid, slapdash muddle. The Royal Court should develop good-quality homegrown plays and not import juvenile duds from overseas.