So spring has definitely arrived in London. How can you tell, well theatreland transitions from major heavyweight plays to a greater spattering of light and witty comedies. There’s invariably at least one Alan Ayckbourne (step up National Theatre from April) and this year we are blessed with two, that’s two, Noel Cowards. After the storming success of last year’s Private Lives, the West End is hosting star-packed comedy revivals Relative Values (reviewed shortly) and this hotly anticipated Blithe Spirit staring acting legend Angela Lansbury.
I’ve always had a real affection for this play, ever since performing in a school production as the maid. Not only is it set in a part of Kent I know well, but I used one of the duologues for my Theatre Studies A-level exam. Fortunately for the world that was my last acting experience, but I developed an enduring love of Noel Coward. Charming middle-aged couple Charles and Ruth Condomine invite their friends to a dinner party and séance, so sceptical novelist Charles can gather material for a character based on local clairvoyant Madame Arcarti, supposing her to be a charlatan. Somehow the ghost of Elvira, Charles’s sassy first wife, is manifested – visible only to him. Much hilarity ensues as people first think he’s mad and then plot to send Elvira back to the ‘other side’. But Elvira is back for a reason and will the living Condomines be rid of her before her plans succeed?
One of the mistakes actors make with Coward is trying too hard to make the lines funny rather than playing it fairly straight and letting the brilliant writing do the work. Fortunately everyone here does just that and this is an absolutely wonderful production. Angela Lansbury is, of course, a glorious Madame Arcati, perfectly balancing the physical humour with an entirely convincing jolly eccentricity. Imagine somewhere between her incompetent trainee-witch in Bedknobs and Broomsticks crossed with the free-spirited and unconventional novelist she played in the 1978 film of Death on the Nile. The moment she walked on stage she got a huge cheer and round of applause, as though she were making a guest appearance in an American sitcom, but it was fully deserved even though she had yet to utter a line!
But the Dame is not the only thing to enjoy; Charles Edwards as ‘astral bigamist’ Charles Condomine is hilarious, bringing an interesting dimension to the role. In the opening scene he’s a seemingly mature, cultured and sensible, although slightly superior, man, but the appearance of Elvira releases a more childish and sarcastic element, showing us more of the playboy he used to be. Interesting to see the effect his very different wives have on his personality. Edwards’s comic timing is fantastic especially in the conversations with Elvira and Ruth, where Ruth cannot see or hear her predecessor. Janie Dee plays Ruth with eyebrows raised in exasperation throughout; first at having to deal with the strange old woman invited to dinner, and then with her husband’s ludicrous claims to have seen his first wife’s ghost. Again she’s great as the veneer of their civilised and grown-up marriage begins to crumble. Jemima Roper is suitably petulant and wheedling as the returned Elvira, craving attention but capable of enacting her dark plans to get her own way.
There’s lots of lovely detail in this production including the living room set of a 1930s countryside home with touches of modern art in the furnishings – the combined result of the two Mrs Condomine’s. This contest between tradition and modernity is fairly typical as Coward’s characters often find conventional marriage rather tiresome, revelling instead in alternative means of living; Elyot and Amanda happily abandon their dull spouses in Private Lives to enjoy a confrontational existence together, whilst Design for Living has Gilda living with two men. Here too we see the duplicity of Charles and Elvira’s marriage, beset by affairs and betrayals from the start, whilst Charles’s marriage to Ruth, he claims, left him domineered and restricted. There are subtle hints to these darker themes in this production amongst the overall whimsy, adding a nice depth to the action, without detracting from the laughs. This is a joyous evening at the theatre, performed with considerable charm by an excellent cast who, along with the audience, end up having a whale of a time.
Blithe Spirit is at the Gielgud Theatre until 7th June. Tickets start at £12.