Jonathan Pizarro reviews Angela Lansbury’s memorable return to the West End stage in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit.
Dame Angela Lansbury returns to the West End in a production she won a Tony award for when the play was revived on Broadway in 2009. Other than the fact it’s showing at the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, that’s about as much as I knew. However, it’s Angela Lansbury. Jessica Fletcher, Mrs. Potts…how could you not go? There are certain people you’d happily see on stage reading the phone book, and Lansbury is one of them.
Managing to find relatively cheap preview tickets (the play is running on previews until March 18th, then a limited 15 week run) we wandered into the packed hallway of a stunning Gielgud Theatre, then told we had to walk back out and back in to get to the upper circle.
The theatre is steep and narrow, winding little passageways lead you upstairs to what feels like the heavens, but even from the top the views are good. The best part about the theatre is the seats in front are so far below you, you don’t have to play the strain game of seeing a play beyond the back of someone’s head.
Blithe Spirit, written by Noel Coward and directed by Michael Blakemore, deals with Charles Condomine (played by Charles Edwards of Downton Abbey fame), a novelist who is writing a book about a paranormal investigator, and has decided to invite a psychic medium, Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury) to a seance at his house. Along for the ride is his second wife Ruth (Janie Dee), who during the evening harbours jealous thoughts about Charles’ first wife Elvira. Completing the dinner party are Dr, Bradman (Simon Jones) and his wife (Sandra Dickinson), all of who are served by the Condomines’ clumsy maid Edith (Patsy Ferran).
The twist being that Charles’ first wife is dead, and although the seance appears to not work, Charles soon finds himself haunted by her ghost. Unfortunately only he can see her, and Ruth starts to suspect Charles may be going mad. Elvira, back from the dead after seven years, is delighted by the havoc she is able to cause in the household, and despite Madame Arcati’s best efforts, decides to hang around.
Both set and plot are simple affairs, the play never moving from the living room in the Condomine household. The engagement and sheer delight comes from the language, a rapid-fire witty exchange of lines that will have you laughing at every possible moment until the play’s tumultuous end.
As one theatregoer I overheard stated, “I didn’t think it would be so funny considering the play is old”. In a world of Hangover movies and gross-out physical comedy, it is wonderful to see a British society comedy survive the ages so well.
This is helped by solid actors completely comfortable with their craft. From the moment you hear Angela Lansbury’s distinctive voice offstage, you are treated to a bohemian psychic with a penchant for cucumber sandwiches and dry martinis, prone to blackouts and not quite aware of the power she has. Quick to temper, Angela Lansbury is in turns a harmless old lady and a crotchety bitch who refuses to suffer fools.
While Angela Lansbury may be the star of the play, both Charles Edwards and Janie Dee simmer wonderfully as long-suffering husband and commanding wife. Patsy Ferran adds plenty of lightness to the production as Edith, a maid who can’t quite get it together when clearing the table.
Add to the mix the malicious glee of Jemima Rooper as the spectre of Elvira, and you have something that isn’t quite so much supernatural comedy as it is a commentary on relationships, marriage, keeping up appearances and those people in your past who just won’t go away.
Previews from: 1 March 2014
Opening night: 18 March 2014
Booking through until: 7 June 2014
Write to us, we’re lonely! @misterpalazzo @vadamagazine