Blithe Spirit review – even Jennifer Saunders can't save this deadly revival

You can have a seance to get in touch with the deceased – or you can go to the theatre. The affinities are considerable between the two, and seances can make for great stage entertainment – even here, where the thrill of a levitating table in a candlelit room is palpable. But Noël Coward’s Madame Arcati is rather more successful than director Richard Eyre in breathing life back into the dead. With a bit of woo-woo, the dotty spirit medium propels Charles Condomine’s deceased wife Elvira purring back into the room. But under Eyre’s direction, Coward’s 1941 play proves resistant to resuscitation.

It’s serviceable enough as a piece of heritage theatre, and features a fine turn from Jennifer Saunders as Arcati. Hers is a lovely physical performance, a batty symphony of girlish skips, birdlike distractedness and jolly little jigs to greet moments of spiritualist triumph: “Who could sit down at a moment like this?!” But around her, the production never settles – between hysterical farce, priggish pastiche or an unlikely late bid for emotional significance – on a tone that lets the whole thing make sense.

And why revive it now? The gender politics are passé, as Charles’s ex and current wife vie for his affections. Shrilly, in the case of Lisa Dillon’s Ruth, who struggles to drive the play forward in ever-decreasing circles of hysteria. Voluptuously, in the case of Emma Naomi’s Elvira – although even she ends up locked in a tiresome bicker about infidelity in Budleigh Salterton. Their relationships with Geoffrey Streatfeild’s shallow Charles feel more cartoonish than real – a problem exposed when the production, bidding to raise the dramatic temperature at its overblown finale, finds itself lacking the fuel to do so.

At least there’s a ghoulish climactic set-piece to enjoy from Rose Wardlaw as the possessed maid, and illusions from magic consultant Paul Kieve – which are diverting, if not always as exciting or comical as they might be. And then there are Madame Arcati’s antics, as she farts around and takes tumbles in the dark. Saunders is on form – but apart from her, blitheness is in short supply.

• At the Harold Pinter theatre, London, until 6 November.

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