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.