Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit was first seen in the West End in 1941 where it went on to set a new record for the longest-run for a non-musical British play, a remarkable 1,997 performances.
The fact that this was wartime was perhaps part of the context, says Geoffrey Streatfeild who plays Charles Condomine in a new revival of the classic.
“The play doesn’t mention the war at all. It was just pure entertainment so people could take their mind off it! Coward had just done the big naval film which was his patriotic comment on the war, and now he was just doing something to entertain.”
Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t go deep – as you will find if you catch up with the latest production at the Theatre Royal Brighton (January 22-25) on a tour which will take it into the West End (The Duke of York’s Theatre from March 5-April 11).
“On one level, it is pure entertainment, but I also think it has got something very interesting to say about relationships, about a certain sort of marriage and about English provincial life.
“It is a very accurate depiction of the kind of marriage which has settled into a certain practical way of being, and the banter and the bickering will certainly be relatable to people…
“And then the alluring dead first wife appears!”
Novelist Charles Condomine and his second wife Ruth find themselves literally haunted by a past relationship when an eccentric medium Madame Arcati (Jennifer Saunders) inadvertently conjures up the spirit of Elvira at a séance.
When she appears, visible only to Charles, and determined to sabotage his current marriage, life – and the afterlife – get very complicated…
“I am not sure that time has done Charles any favours,” Geoffrey concedes. “I think the nature of how times have changed means that some of the things that he says seem a lot worse now than they would have done at the time. And I think that’s why our director (former National Theatre director Sir) Richard (Eyre) has been so clever with the twist that he has given it.”
But certainly Charles is reprehensible in some respects.
“He is very sceptical and cynical and wants to use Madame Arcati for material in a book.
“There is a smugness in his attitude… and he gets his comeuppance! The audience will certainly sympathise with Madame Arcati. She turns up and everyone is determined to make her appear a fool and a charlatan when in fact she is this extraordinary woman.
“We did the show in Bath for six weeks last summer and now we are on tour before going into the West End. I think touring is great.
“It is particularly good to see how people are really connecting with the play. People are having a really good time, and it still works incredibly well as a play. The audiences really, really love it.
“It is quite a well-known play. It is done by a lot of amateur dramatics.
“I actually did it myself as a student. A lot of people coming along will have some idea about it, and people will also have an idea about Noel Coward, but what is interesting about this one is that it is not the elite London black-tie world you might think. It is set on the south coast. It is not a sophisticated literary metropolitan world, but another aspect of the English.”
Jennifer Saunders as Madame Arcati and Geoffrey as Charles are joined by Lisa Dillon as Ruth Condomine, Emma Naomi as Elvira, Simon Coates as Dr Bradman, Lucy Robinson as Mrs Bradman and Rose Wardlaw as Edith.
The production opened in June last year part of former Chichester Festival Theatre artistic director Jonathan Church’s second summer season at Theatre Royal Bath where it played to sell-out houses.