Noël Coward’s comedy about death and the afterlife – first performed during the second world war – seems the perfect play for dark times. Judi Dench, who will star in a forthcoming film version, recently likened its cheering effect to a glass of “cold champagne drunk too quickly”. Richard Eyre’s revival has some fizz, though most of the bubbles come from Jennifer Saunders’ turn as the medium Madame Arcati, played as a socially awkward, slightly mannish English countrywoman rather than a flamboyant or imperious bohemian.
Saunders is a natural in the role, ruddy-cheeked and sensibly dressed in walking boots, petticoats and brown cardigans. She draws laughter with physical comedy that is downplayed but effective, as she sits with legs spread or speaks of her digestive troubles while hoovering up the food and drink. “That cuckoo is very angry,” she observes of birdsong outside, to demonstrate her paranormal powers before the seance. When that scene comes, Saunders dons beads, cloak and turban but is later wide-eyed with surprise at the news that she has actually managed to summon an apparition.
When Saunders is not on stage, the pace flags and the pitch of the comedy veers between flat and a little too hysterical as the central couple, Charles and Ruth, grapple with the ghostly intrusion of Charles’s sexy first wife, Elvira, who returns from the dead to play mischief with their marriage.
On the surface, Coward’s play is preoccupied with spectres and death but we do not have to look far beneath it to find a metaphor for the horrors of midlife marriage. Tensions within the paranormal menage a trois drive the screwball comedy, but are also where the true darkness of the play resides. There are secret betrayals in Charles’s first, fiery marriage to Elvira and nagging insecurities and jealousies in his second marriage, to Ruth. The laughter comes at the expense of the women, which feels antiquated and jarring when Ruth and Elvira are pitted against each other – Ruth the cliched older nag and Elvira the sexy young succubus.
The ghostly scenes are done well, particularly the final one which has an almost operatic sense of horror when the set itself – a drawing room with draped sofas and books – swirls into disarray to reflect Charles’s final unravelling.
Rose Wardlaw gives a strong performance as the speedy, second-sighted maid, Edith, as does Emma Naomi as Elvira, whose appearance has a 1950s sitcom feel, reminiscent of I Love Lucy.
A glass-of-champagne play, then, but not a vintage production.
At Theatre Royal Bath until 6 July.