There was a tangible prickle of excitement and expectation that filtered through the audience before Dame Angela Lansbury took to the stage – an audible murmur of the imminent and tantalising prospect of witnessing a great in action. When Lansbury did make an appearance, she was immediately greeted with a roar of applause. I’ve never witnessed something like this before. It’s a Broadway thing, apparently.
And boy is it deserved. Dame Angela is an absolute pro. At 88 years, she shows no signs of not being at the top of her game – it is very difficult to imagine how she could give a more solid performance. Her timing is excellent: she knows just when to lose herself in the sparrow-like twittering of her character, Madame Arcati, and when to focus, firing off a razor look and a snappy retort. Never are the audience anywhere other than in the palm of her hand.
Blithe Spirit is a fun play. Briefly, for those who may not know it, Charles and Ruth invite Arcati over to perform a séance, just so Charles can glean the “tricks of the trade” from a profession he deems utterly fraudulent, for a novel he’s writing. Arcati’s dappy nature hides a genuine talent and she summons Charles’s first wife, the late Elvira, over from ‘the other side’. Elvira’s mischievous antics infuriate the living, none more so than Ruth, who is unintentionally killed by the ghoul, returning as a ghost herself to make Charles’s life a misery. Arcati, with the help of the sweet but vacant maid Edith, finally manages to banish the pair back to the land of the dead.
As is perhaps the case with Noël Coward plays – both at the time they were written, and certainly for contemporary audiences – Blithe Spirit occasionally borders on the twee, with its clipped accents and semi-constant references to cucumber sandwiches. The episodic structure of the piece, in which a brief synopsis of each scene is projected onto the curtain à la a 30s silent movie, gets a little tiresome. Yet there is no doubting that Blithe Spirit has a whimsical charm and poetry about it, and I believe that stems from it firmly being a period piece.
With this likely to be Lansbury’s final stage performance, Blithe Spirit is clearly all hers for the taking. Yet this shouldn’t mask some excellent comedic performances from others. Janie Dee is a gem as Ruth, displaying sharp comic reflexes in her verbal to-ing and fro-ing both with husband Charles Edwards (Charles) and rival Jemima Rooper (Elvira). A word also for Patsy Ferran as Edith: Ferran takes a small part and transforms it into a real highlight, delivering her role with an impish sense of fun. It is worth noting that this is Ferran’s professional stage début following graduation from RADA. I’m sure that sharing a stage with Dame Angela Lansbury night after night is an education that can’t really be bettered.
Blithe Spirit is playing at the Gielgud Theatre until 7 June. For more information and tickets, see the Delfont Mackintosh website.