If you’ve somehow stumbled into this revival of Noël Coward’s daft supernatural comedy ‘Blithe Spirit’ without prior knowledge of 88-year-old star Angela Lansbury, you won’t find it hard to work out which one she is.
In terrifyingly un-British scenes, the theatre erupts into tumultuous applause the moment the erstwhile Jessica Fletcher of ‘Murder She Wrote’ bumbles on as eccentric medium Madame Arcati; she even gets a hand when she bumbles back off. There are a lot of diehard Lansbury fans in the audience, mostly men who one might describe as ‘friends of Angela’, here to see their heroine’s first London performance since 1975. That applause is congratulations on 70 years in showbiz and – not to put too fine a point on it – still being alive.
And Angela Lansbury is very much alive: the way she dwells on certain lines suggests a slight shakiness of memory, but she genuinely has the energy of a woman 20 years younger. She remains a fine comedy actress, too, playing Arcanti as a sweet old lady given to hilariously abrupt sense of humour failure when discussing the spirit world.
It’s an enjoyable performance, and as it’s basically what the audience is here for, it makes Michael Blakemore’s production a success on its own terms. Lansbury’s medium-sized part isn’t the whole story, though. Behind her is a creaky old farce about a debonair writer named Charles (Charles Edwards) who gets more than he bargained for when he hires Arcati as a joke and accidentally brings back the spirit of his deceased ex-wife Elvira (Jemima Rooper), much to the consternation of his new spouse Ruth (Janie Dee).
There’s more ham in the acting than at your local butchers, but that’s kind of what ‘Blithe Spirit’ calls for, and the talented cast are all great sports. It’s a good-looking evening, too, with gorgeous costumes from Simon Higlett. Blakemore’s production may not be a patch on the great farces of his past – notably ‘Noises Off’ – but it’s good-natured, old fashioned and your nan will enjoy it.
Really, though, Coward’s 1941 play has had its day, its clutch of good one-liners flattering an inane plot with unpleasant misogynist undertones. It’s perhaps understandable that Lansbury and fellow octogenarian Blakemore wish to end their careers with this huge hit from their youths. But after this, let’s put ‘Blithe Spirit’ to rest.
So spring has definitely arrived in London. How can you tell, well theatreland transitions from major heavyweight plays to a greater spattering of light and witty comedies. There’s invariably at least one Alan Ayckbourne (step up National Theatre from April) and this year we are blessed with two, that’s two, Noel Cowards. After the storming success of last year’s Private Lives, the West End is hosting star-packed comedy revivals Relative Values (reviewed shortly) and this hotly anticipated Blithe Spirit staring acting legend Angela Lansbury.
Charming middle-aged couple Charles and Ruth Condomine invite their friends to a dinner party and séance, so sceptical novelist Charles can gather material for a character based on local clairvoyant Madame Arcarti, supposing her to be a charlatan. Somehow the ghost of Elvira, Charles’s sassy first wife, is manifested – visible only to him. Much hilarity ensues as people first think he’s mad and then plot to send Elvira back to the ‘other side’. But Elvira is back for a reason and will the living Condomines be rid of her before her plans succeed?
One of the mistakes actors make with Coward is trying too hard to make the lines funny rather than playing it fairly straight and letting the brilliant writing do the work. Fortunately everyone here does just that and this is an absolutely wonderful production. Angela Lansbury is, of course, a glorious Madame Arcati, perfectly balancing the physical humour with an entirely convincing jolly eccentricity. Imagine somewhere between her incompetent trainee-witch in Bedknobs and Broomsticks crossed with the free-spirited and unconventional novelist she played in the 1979 film of Death on the Nile. The moment she walked on stage she got a huge cheer and round of applause, as though she were making a guest appearance in an American sitcom, but it was fully deserved even though she had yet to utter a line!
That’s not the only thing to enjoy; Charles Edwards as ‘astral bigamist’ Charles Condomine is hilarious, bringing an interesting dimension to the role. In the opening scene he’s a seemingly mature, cultured and sensible, although slightly superior, man, but the appearance of Elvira releases a more childish and sarcastic element, showing us more of the playboy he used to be. Interesting to see the effect his very different wives have on his personality. Edwards’s comic timing is fantastic especially in the conversations with Elvira and Ruth, where Ruth cannot see or hear her predecessor. Janie Dee plays Ruth with eyebrows raised in exasperation throughout; first at having to deal with the strange old woman invited to dinner, and then with her husband’s ludicrous claims to have seen his first wife’s ghost. Again she’s great as the veneer of their civilised and grown-up marriage begins to crumble. Jemima Roper is suitably petulant and wheedling as the returned Elvira, craving attention but capable of enacting her dark plans to get her own way.
There’s lots of lovely detail in this production including the living
room set of a 1930s countryside home with touches of modern art in the
furnishings – the combined result of the two Mrs Condomine’s. This contest
between tradition and modernity is fairly typical as Coward’s characters often
find conventional marriage rather tiresome revelling instead in alternative
means of living; Elyot and Amanda happily abandon their dull spouses in Private
Lives to enjoy a confrontational existence together, whilst Design for Living
has Gilda living with two men. Here too we see the duplicity of Charles and
Elvira’s marriage, beset by affairs and betrayals from the start, whilst
Charles’s marriage to Ruth, he claims, left him domineered and restricted.
There are subtle hints to these darker themes in this production amongst the
overall whimsy, adding a nice depth to the action, without detracting from the
laughs. This is a joyous evening at the theatre, performed with considerable
charm by an excellent cast who, along with the audience, end up having a whale
of a time.
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