The evening belongs to Jennifer Saunders… what a pleasure it is to see her find the perfect medium for her huge comic talents in Blithe Spirit
Harold Pinter Theatre, London Until November 6, 2hrs 30mins
Theatre Royal Bath Touring until February 19, 2hrs 25mins
East Is East
Birmingham Repertory Theatre 2hrs 20mins
The role of potty spiritualist medium Madame Arcati in Noël Coward’s sublime supernatural farce is theatrical catnip for a comic actress, so much so that this 1941 play rarely seems far from the stage.
Here, Jennifer Saunders reprises her role in Richard Eyre’s 2019 production, making a Covid-delayed West End transfer.
What a welcome return it is. Saunders earns every ‘absolutely fabulous’ accolade the part won her. She blends dead-straight delivery with absurd swooping, squeaking vocal acrobatics and daffy physical ones, ending up legs akimbo on the floor.
Here, Jennifer Saunders (above, with Geoffrey Streatfeild) reprises her role in Richard Eyre’s 2019 production, making a Covid-delayed West End transfer
Coward’s plot – Charles conjures the ghost of his glamorous but ‘morally untidy’ first wife Elvira in a seance, to the ire of jealous second wife Ruth – goes by like magic in this fluffy, frothy production.
Both Geoffrey Streatfeild as Charles and Lisa Dillon as Ruth offer amusingly escalating exasperation. While Madeleine Mantock couldn’t be more mischievously seductive as Elvira – ravishingly costumed and lit in shimmering silver and blue – she never quite fleshes out a character who could be more than just a beautiful spectre.
But the evening really belongs to Saunders. What a pleasure it is to see her find the perfect, well, medium for her huge comic talents.
There are more plum roles on offer in another revival: Ronald Harwood’s 1980 play The Dresser, about a grand old actor and his dresser, has become a bankable modern classic.
Terry Johnson’s new production has the sort of casting that makes you go ‘oh, of course’: Matthew Kelly hamming it up as the colossally pompous Sir, about to play Lear for the 227th time, and Julian Clary cutting him down to size as his camp-as-Christmas dresser, Norman.
Still, it initially feels a little uncertain, Clary rushing some moments and hesitant in others. Once Kelly arrives, they find firmer ground. Clary is a wistful, sibilantly soft-spoken Norman, revealing a tender undertow of melancholy.
It reminds you that, although The Dresser is enduringly funny – both parts get plenty of waspy, witty asides – it’s also a mournful thing.
Sir arrives in a tempest of unstoppable tears, in a Lear-worthy breakdown of his own. Kelly really does look on his last legs: red-faced and gurning, fingers splayed and trembling, child-like in his hopelessness.
The Dresser’s 1942 wartime setting, where the production of King Lear almost doesn’t open thanks to an air-raid, lands with particular potency – a certain ‘the show must go on’ spirit tugging on the heart-strings after the past year.
It’s 25 years since Ayub Khan Din’s play East Is East, later made into a hit film, opened at Birmingham Rep. But Iqbal Khan’s anniversary production, playing at the National Theatre from October 7, feels like it’s yet to find the right tone.
It’s 25 years since Ayub Khan Din’s play East Is East, later made into a hit film, opened at Birmingham Rep (Noah Manzoor, above)
Broad, almost sitcom style humour abounds in a portrait of a British-Pakistani family in Salford in the 1970s.
It is warm but wincingly unsentimental – some might say un-PC – in its look at multiculturalism.
But even when the second half lurches into darker territory, with the tyrannical patriarch beating his family although Tony Jayawardena’s performance remains purely comic – that of a loveable old rogue, not damaging abuser.