Blithe Spirit - Gielgud Theatre 2014
There is nothing like a Dame - especially one playing a Madame. But this isn't a Madame that's selling sex, but connections to the afterlife. And the person bringing her to vivacious life is a stage and screen legend with connections that spread everywhere. She is theatreland's newest theatrical dame Angela Lansbury who was made one in the New Year's Honours List. She was born in London but has been resident for most of her adult life Stateside, since being evacuated as a child to America, where at the age of 17 she began a film career and earned her first Oscar nomination for Gaslight.
Now, over 70 years on, she is back in London, making her first appearance on a West End stage in nearly forty years, since starring in the London premiere of Gypsy back in 1973 at the Piccadilly Theatre in a revival that subsequently transferred to Broadway.
She is, of course, a bona fide Broadway stage star - a winner of five Tony Awards, including one for Broadway's last revival of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit in 2009. Though we've all too sadly missed out on a big chunk of her theatrical career, it's truly wonderful to have her back in London. And it's a special treat that the vehicle that brings her back is Blithe Spirit, which Lansbury has herself called "the best stage role I've ever had."
It's also rather wonderful that not only is she performing it on the very same stage where her actress mother Moyna MacGill made her first London professional appearance at in 1918, but also that it was in a Coward nightclub revue that she made her own professional debut in 1942 - the same year, coincidentally, that Blithe Spirit was first premiering in London.
So there's plenty of lovely historical resonance to see her come full circle back to London in this play. But far beyond that, both star and the play are ideally matched to sparklingly show each other off. What could seem, in other hands, to be an exaggerated caricature of eccentricity gains depth and surprise in Lansbury's hands (and twinkling eyes and mouth), partly also thanks to the warmth that the audience bring to her. Here's a performer that you can't take your eyes off, but more importantly owns the audience's hearts as well.
From the moment she makes her first appearance to a warm round of entrance applause, she's utterly in charge. But the fizz doesn't go out of the play when she's not onstage, either. The joy of Michael Blakemore's production is that it is so luxuriously cast throughout that it's not a one-woman show, either. She may unquestionably be the reason everyone has come to see it, but she's not the only reason they come to love it.
While Lansbury is best known to the public at large for playing TV detective writer Murder, She Wrote, here she's playing a woman called to assist another writer called Charles Condomine, who invites her to hold a séance at his house as he tries to gather material for a mystery story he is writing about a homicidal medium.
"Am I to understand that I was only invited in a spirit of mockery?," says Madame Arcati, when she discovers why she's been asked to visit. But there's no mockery, only huge affection, for Lansbury's own visit. As she inadvertently brings back the ghost of Charles's first wife Elvira, who died seven years earlier, it is his second wife Ruth who finds herself mocked.
Like an alternative version of Coward's Private Lives, Charles is trapped between his first and second marriages, albeit that one partner is officially deceased. Charles Edwards is simultaneously hilarious and desperate as he tries to keep his two wives happy. Edwards, who has worked regularly for the National and Globe, amongst others, is as wonderfully funny as he is genuinely perplexed by what has happened.
As his wives, Janie Dee (the living Ruth) and Jemima Rooper (the deceased Elvira) are sheer class. I adore Dee just as much as I do Lansbury, so this is a real love-fest for me! (And no, I'm not embarrassed to say so) Dee, like Lansbury, has a versatility that spans comedy, drama and musical theatre, and can be brittle and brutal as required. Jemima Rooper, a rising star whose credits in the West End have included the original production of One Man, Two Guvnors and a revival of All My Sons, is equally superb.
Together, they all make Blithe Spirit unmissable.
"Angela Lansbury is on sparkling form in Blithe Spirit, one of Noël Coward’s most inventive comedies."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"The bickering menage a trois is exceptionally well played here. Charles Edwards beautifully captures the supercilious suavity of the novelist who is knocked off balance by the idea that it's his “subconscious” which has summoned Elvira...."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"Even if Lansbury's voice seems on a different level from that of her colleagues, it is a perfectly credible performance. The real star of the show, however, is Charles Edwards as the novelist-hero."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Angela Lansbury’s return to the West End, after an absence of nearly 40 years, is something to treasure...Whenever she’s onstage there is a happy mix of substance and scene-stealing: she captures the character’s self-importance but also her frivolity."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard