Blithe Spirit, Gielgud Theatre

reviewed for The Spectator, 19 March 2014

Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud Theatre ©Alastair Muir

Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud Theatre Photo credit: Alastair Muir

If you’d asked me before this week, I’m afraid I’d have guessed Angela Lansbury had already reached the spirit world. I’ve always imagined her eternally inhabiting the mid-twentieth century, as the prim but decidedly experimental home front heroine in Bednobs and Broomsticks (1971) or the icy Cold War matriarch in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).  Yet at the age of 88 she’s alive and kicking – nigh twerking – at the Gielgud Theatre in Blithe Spirit, Noel Coward’s tale of a newly re-married widower, who inconveniently rouses the ghost of his first wife and finds himself committing “astral bigamy”.

In 1941, Blithe Spirit constituted wartime escapism for Coward, so with her clipped vowels and Queen Mother drawl, Lansbury is still on home territory. I’d have loved to hate it – she does need to be punished for all those God-awful episodes of Murder, She Wrote – but as Madame Arcati, the dotty medium whose séance kickstarts this domestic haunting, she could put a smile on the face of Diogenes. And while Blithe Spirit is far too frequently a staple of schools and amdram societies, this is likely to be the finest production you’ll ever see. Simply splendiferous.

Blithe Spirit is no light entertainment: this is a cold and callous play. Which is why it is a delight. Lesser productions tend to obscure this cruel core, burying the bitterness of the Condomines’ domestic warfare beneath the light interplay of cucumber sandwiches and gags about the English weather. But Coward’s humour is acidic: Charles Condomine begins the play by cracking jokes with his second wife about the death of his first, Elvira (“she was of the earth, earthy” / “well she is now, anyhow”). Michael Blakemore, another sprightly octogenarian at 85, directs with a wry feel for the icy cynicism at the heart of the piece. The curtain rises on a scene of domestic bliss, as Condomine happily flirts with his own wife – by the final bow, the arrival of Elvira’s ghost has exposed not just the mutual-loathing at the heart of his second match, but the sham of his idealised first.

Angela Lansbury has star billing, but the pulse of the drama is maintained by three of the most compelling actors working in Britain today: Charles Edwards is a dry but doltish Condomine, Janie Dee his second wife, Ruth, and Jemima Rooper sparkles as Elvira. Rooper has a good line in mischievous sexpots (I’ve been watching her play them since she was sixteen) and she is in her element as Elvira, half poltergeist, half seductress. Edwards brings to his role all the verve with dialogue he showed in his career-making role as Benedict at the Globe’s 2011 Much Ado About Nothing. Then he played opposite Eve Best, and here he shows again that his stage presence doesn’t fade even beside the most powerful of actresses. Janie Dee is a ferocious Ruth, putting her spectral rival in her place with the same controlling sang-froid she uses to manage a tricky dinner guest.

But the night belongs to Angela Lansbury. And if I’ve harped on about her age, it’s because it’s a shock to see her quiver with energy, as sharp and alert as an actress forty years younger. Like so many spiritualists, Madame Arcati is rather drab and ordinaire. But underneath the charity shop clothes and middle-class gluttony, Lansbury invests her with an undercurrent of primitivism: Nijinsky disguised as Nigel Farage. Madam Arcati may be a half-cracked conjuress, but Angela Lansbury is a true mistress of her craft. If you’ve got a ticket, you’re very lucky.