Madame Arcati may summon the chill wind of ectoplasm in Noel Coward’s comedy of spirits but it is a rare and enveloping warmth that pervades the auditorium, on both sides of the footlights, thanks to Angela Lansbury who is playing the famous psychic.
Lansbury, now 88, hasn’t appeared on a West End stage for more than 40 years her last appearance was in the London premiere of Gypsy back in 1973, though she subsequently played Gertrude to Albert Finney’s Hamlet for the National in 1975, first at the Old Vic, then at the Lyttelton. Her homecoming is a major event.
She may have been a theatrical stranger over here lately, but the last seven years have seen her star on Broadway no less than four times, including a production of Blithe Spirit in 2009 for which she won her fifth Tony award. But the first and most important thing to say is that there is no sense at all in which it feels as though she is treading water.
From the moment she makes her first appearance to a warm round of applause, she owns the stage, the character and the audience entirely. Shimmering in a bohemian outfit of multiple colours, and wearing frizzy orange-hued hair that’s bunched around her ears in Princess Leia-fashion, she’s weird, wired in more senses than one – her voice is subtly amplified, and utterly wonderful. She’s also, of course, instantly recognisable as detective writer Jessica Fletcher from TV’s Murder, She Wrote; but here she’s not a writer herself but called to assist one, Charles Condomine, who invites her to hold a seance at his house as he tries to gather material for a mystery story he is writing about a homicidal medium.
“Am I to understand that I was only invited in a spirit of mockery?,” asks Madame Arcati, when she discovers why she’s been asked to visit, and inadvertently brings back the ghost of Charles’ first wife Elvira, who died seven years earlier – and is determined now to wreak havoc with his second marriage to Ruth. But there’s no mockery, at least from the audience – just a blissful suspension of disbelief. And that’s the genius of Lansbury’s casting: you’re prepared to believe and trust her in anything.
But then this is a production that exudes trust and confidence throughout. It might have been tempting to shrink the show around Lansbury, so that she alone owns the limelight. But director Michael Blakemore knows that although Lansbury’s character and Coward’s comedy itself live on another plane, the stakes have to be kept high for it to truly resonate. Like Private Lives, this is a play about disruptive, tetchy marital conflicts, and Charles Edwards is simultaneously hilarious and desperate as he tries to keep his two wives happy.
This terrific classical actor, most recently seen in Strange Interlude at the National, isn’t the only piece of luxury casting. Janie Dee as his current wife and Jemima Rooper as his late one, share a vocal huskiness that lets one know exactly the kind of woman he goes for, but they’re also both cut from the same alternately bullying and pouting cloth that makes them determined to get their own way.
While the production has been almost entirely recast around Lansbury since Broadway, fellow British actor Simon Jones, who has been long based in the US, has made the crossing with her as family friend Dr Bradman, and it’s good to have him back on the London stage, too. Recent RADA graduate Patsy Ferran slightly overplays the maid Edith, but it’s a ripe comic turn that might be funnier if it was a notch calmer.
The production is a sure hit, though, and no one who loves theatre will want to miss Lansbury’s return.
See interview with Angela Lansbury in The Stage March 20, 2014 edition
- Gielgud Theatre, London
- March 18-June 7
- Author: Noel Coward
- Director: Michael Blakemore
- Producers: Lee Dean, Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, John Frost, Steve Traxler, Will Trice, Charles Diamond, Ken Davenport, Kathleen K Johnson
- Cast: Janie Dee, Charles Edwards, Jemima Rooper, Angela Lansbury, Serena Evans, Patsy Ferran, Simon Jones
- Running time: 2hrs 30mins