Chris Abbott | 18 Feb 2020 11:47am
Sitting in a full Richmond Theatre, as the curtain rose on a set which would have been applauded in times gone by, I was taken back to a time in which audiences looked for a well-made play with a carefully chosen cast steered by an experienced director. And, satisfyingly, that is exactly what we got in this detailed, authoritative and very funny production of one of Noel Coward’s more timeless plays. It is regularly revived on professional and amateur stages, but rarely with such skill and to such effect, and with such a superb level of stagecraft.
Richard Eyre’s production makes much of moments that might be of no consequence in other hands. Whether it is Madame Arcati’s wariness of red meat before a séance or a maid entering with a tray of drinks, every opportunity is taken to extract maximum humour from the situation, and always in character, and to support the talented cast. Anthony Ward’s setting is greatly enhanced by the work of regular stage illusionist Paul Kieve, who ensures some surprises as well as very smooth appearances for the ghostly first wife. Enhanced by sound and light, these effects are also neatly forecasted, especially to those who know the play, whether this is from the first sight of a set linked with bookshelves or the neat alerting of the audience to a special vase on the mantelpiece.
Eyre is working with an excellent cast, with the two wives nicely contrasting. Emma Naomi absolutely looks the part of Elvira but is firmly kept in her place by the lively and determined portrayal of Ruth by Lisa Dillon. Simon Coates does his experienced best with Dr Bradman and makes much of what is a part with little to offer an actor, and Lucy Robinson makes even more of the usual Coward wife, often a more detailed portrayal than that of the male partner. She has the authentic Coward voice and urbane brittleness, as is the case with Geoffrey Streatfeild’s masterly Charles, by turns exasperated, confused and determined. It is a sign of the skill of these actors and the assuredness of this production that an apparently innocuous line like “My husband’s driven her into Folkestone” could produce one of the biggest laughs of the evening.
If these actors carry most of the witty lines in the play, and do so well, it is left to the two remaining members of the cast to add physical humour to the mix, and they do so superbly. Rose Wardlow makes more than could ever be expected of over-enthusiastic but uncomprehending and bewildered housemaid Edith, always a gem of a cameo for a clever actor. On this occasion, the combination of a vastly experienced director and a young but talented actor produces a performance where every entrance is eagerly awaited; Rose Wardlaw is a comic actor to watch out for.
Importantly, her performance in no way unbalances the play and in fact perfectly balances it, and in the key role of Madame Arcati, Jennifer Saunders delights her audience and delivers a superb and fully-rounded portrayal with broader slapstick moments absolutely rooted in character and plot. The fat suit, glasses, eyebrows and costume are important, but it is the skill of the actor that makes us believe in this mad old lady and even sympathise with her. When, towards the end of the play, Edith and Madame Arcati resolve the plot together, these two talented performers create something quite special (with even a nod to The Exorcist). This is a production that deserves to be seen more widely, and is of a standard that we do not often see on the touring circuit. Let us hope this may also be the beginning of something of a revival for the plays of Noel Coward.