Blithe Spirit, theatre review: Angela Lansbury delicious in West End comeback

4.00

Gielgud Theatre, London

“Aw, bless her” cooed the woman behind me dotingly when Angela Lansbury finally bustled on, to a burst of rapturous applause, in this West End reprise of her 2009 Tony Award-winning turn as Madame Arcati, Noel Coward's eccentric medium.

It's a sentiment that the audiences now flocking to the Gielgud Theatre clearly echo. 

The 88-year old Murder, She Wrote star, theatrical legend, and newly appointed Dame of the British Empire may not have trodden the boards in London for forty years but the public has firmly (and understandably) decided to accord her the status of National Treasure. 

Her every exit and entrance in Michael Blakemore's wittily assured production is greeted with a warm round – especially the moment when Arcati goes off and pops back in again to purloin, as an afterthought, a fortifying cucumber sandwich for the bike ride home. It gives the delighted punters the chance to clap Lansbury twice in quick succession.

Highly skilled comic actresses (Dora Bryan and Alison Steadman among them) have come to grief in this role by overdoing the oddball qualities. This misses the point that the joke is, in fact, more on the snooty sceptics who invite the medium to dinner in a spirit of mockery only to find that she accidentally conjures up the ghost of Elvira, the first wife of the smug, remarried popular novelist, Charles Condomine, thus plunging him into astral bigamy. 

With her red Princess Leia-style coiffure and clashing arty-meets-hearty wardrobe, Lansbury's Madame A is a quivering, deliciously erratic blend of bohemian lady novelist and girl guide as she knocks back the dry martinis and jauntily urges that “[we] really put our shoulders to the wheel” at the next séance. 

It's the way, though, that she emphasises the medium's batty and strangely admirable self-belief that makes her portrayal so funny and endearing.  Hence the hilariously total solemnity with which performs a stiff-kneed, lunatic getting-into-a-trance dance (with apologies to the Rite of Spring) and the long glare that could shrivel a scorpion with which she counters any hint of levity from the doctor's wife.  “'Amateur' is a word I cannot tolerate,” she declares with a fastidious shudder, her sense of the dignity of her calling never remotely dented by the evidence of its unruly results.

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.  As Ruth, his managing, tidy-minded second wife, Janie Dee is delectably waspish and distraught, while Jemima Rooper, with her strong-jawed, subversive looks, alluringly brings out the anarchic earthiness of the ghost's havoc-creating malice.  Coward doesn't make either character an attractive proposition and with the novelist eventually giving both wives the slip (Edwards, wearing two black arm bands, amusingly struggles to suppress a smirk) this is a cold-blooded, arguably misogynistic comedy. But it's warmed by the presence of Lansbury who, at the standing ovation, looked to be a very happy medium

To June 7; 0844 482 5130

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power