Angela Lansbury has returned to London’s West End for the first time in 40 years to star in Michael Blakemore’s new production of Noël Coward’s sharp comedy Blithe Spirit. Probably best known for her portrayal of Jessica Fletcher in the TV series Murder, She Wrote, Angela Lansbury has had a laudable career spanning seven decades and won many awards, including five Tony Awards and six Golden Globes.
Lansbury plays Madam Arcati a medium who is invited to the house of the novelist Charles Condomine (played by Charles Edwards) to conduct a séance. Condomine is actually researching material for his new novel and believes Madam Arcati to be a complete fraudster. He invites the equally sceptical Dr & Mrs Bradmans to the evening and the party smugly poke fun at the subject and the clairvoyant before she arrives.
Lansbury’s presence lights up the stage and her interpretation of the eccentric Madam Arcati is enchanting, she manages to bring together the perfect balance of dotty mystic and passionate professional. She glides around the stage, setting the mood for the séance and summoning up Daphne, a child spirit who helps her communicate with the other side. She finally falls into a deep trance and accidently summons up the ghost of Condomine’s first wife Elvira (Jemima Rooper). Jemima Rooper is wonderful as Elvira, playing a very minxy dead dame, who manipulates Charles against his very sensible and down to earth second wife Ruth beautifully. It soon becomes clear that Elvira has come back for a very specific reason and has a plan to reclaim her husband forever. Condomine seems strangely unaffected by the presence of his two wives, only he can see Elvira and the dialogue between the characters is emotionally charged, heavy with resentment and personal gripes. It is clear that he enjoys the attention of the two women and this at times leaves an unsettling feeling of misogyny and a sense that perhaps this odd love-triangle could be to his liking.
The dialogue is acidic and witty throughout and Lansbury delivers her sharp put-down remarks to such an effect that one is utterly convinced of her belief in her own powers. Janie Dee is both funny and intolerable as Ruth, who is relentlessly tormented by Elvira and eventually loses her carefully constructed cool sophistication in hilarious rants of rage and fits of jealously. Watch out for new comer Patsy Ferran who plays Edith, this is her debut performance and she is wonderful as the terrified maid who is too eager to please.
Noël Coward’s 1941 play is fun and thoroughly enjoyable but behind the light hearted façade is a bitter comedy that shines a light on the tensions between love, infidelity and commitment. The play also highlights the pettiness of people, the triviality of their lives and their self-centred nature.
Blithe Spirit is on at The Gielgud Theatre in London until 7th June.