Review: Blithe Spirit

Lansbury is a Cowardly comic genius


By John Nathan, March 26, 2014
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Gielgud Theatre, London W1

Spirited group: Angela Lansbury is the centre of attention

Spirited group: Angela Lansbury is the centre of attention

The headline here is all about the star playing Madame Arcati in Noel Coward's eternal comedy classic. That, and her age. At 88, Angela Lansbury delivers the role with a touch of comic genius that runs through this production by Michael Blakemore - who, at 85, is himself no newbie.

With wine-red plaited braids coiled over her ears, Lansbury's psychic looks like a Teutonic hippie. The clairvoyant has been invited to conduct a séance at the plush Kent home of writer Charles Condomine. Unbeknown to Arcati, the purpose of the evening is to conduct research for Condomine's next novel. But he gets more material than he needs when Arcati's mumbo-jumbo summons the ghost of Condomine's first wife Elvira, who died seven years previously. This doesn't go down too well with his second wife Ruth, to whom he has been married for five years.

Lansbury moves around the stage with surprising speed and energy. And in the séance scenes she prances lightly around the room with gestures that beckon the spirits out of thin air.

It's either that or an imitation of an exotic mammal's mating dance. It's a superb blend of the down-to-earth and the downright eccentric.

And there was a sense of theatre history at the curtain call, during which her fans applauded a long and illustrious showbiz career that has included the TV detective series, Murder, She Wrote.

Lansbury is great. But the success of this production is really down to some extremely savvy casting beneath the top billing. Charles Edwards is an actor with real depth and breadth but there are few sights more pleasurable than his quintessential Englishman. His Condomine is as sophisticated and dry as one of his favourite martinis. There's also terrific work from Janie Dee as his (living) wife, who gets understandably angry at the intrusion of her husband's dead ex, but without ever becoming shrill. Jemima Rooper as the mischievous (dead) spouse is equally on form and there's a subtly brilliant comic turn from Patsy Ferran as Condomine's ungraceful maid.

This is one of the best-known plays in the comedy canon and still works as a chilling ghost story, not because of the way the dead haunt the living but because of the way the living could hardly care less about the dead.

    Last updated: 5:38pm, March 26 2014