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Blithe Spirit Review

Blithe Spirit Angela Lansbury steals the show in Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud Theatre.

Hidden behind Noel Cowards improbably silly story of dead wives and séances is a more thoughtful study of passion, love and commitment in Michael Blakemore’s witty production. The shows centerpiece Angela Lansbury makes it all look so easy as the vibrating medium Madame Arcati, and at 83 years old, gives the much younger cast members a run for their money.

Written by Noel Coward in an astounding six-day period in 1941, Blithe Spirit is a riotous farce about matrimonial love from beyond the grave that centers around one Charles Condomine (Charles Edwards), a charming novelist who after inviting what he thinks is the fraudulent psychic medium Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury) to summon the spirit of his late wife Elvira (Jemima Rooper), is suddenly thrown into a ghostly love triangle. His current wife Ruth (Janie Dee) is prickly at the best of times, but now with the arrival of the first wife in spirit form, she takes on a jealous rage to rival any Greek tragedy. With the ghost of Elvira now taking up permanent residence in the couples marital home, they bring back the self-serious Madame Arcati to exorcise this spirit or else be doomed to this bizarre ménage à trois forever.

Like any Coward play, the comedy is mechanical, but when delivered at a pace and with a flair for the off-hand comment then the creaky jokes suddenly spring back to life, much like the ghostly subject of the play. Director Michael Blakemore has done a wonderful job in tightening up the springs in this joke machine and the cast steam through the taught dialogue with a delicate grace that is so often lacking in farces from this period. Janie Dee’s tight-lipped Ruth is bursting with repressed passion. She brings a contorted prudishness to the character and when set against the ridiculous dances of Angela Lansbury as she connects with the spirit world, creates some of the biggest laughs of the night. Dee’s dancing background also seems to come in handy here, as she flows around the stage like a true prima ballerina, but replacing the point shoes with six-inch heels. Charles Edwards gives the shallow character of Charles a charming naivety, especially when stuck in the middle of the two warring women; one might even liken him to a rabbit in the headlights. Jemima Rooper does an excellent job in bringing out the malicious playfulness of Elvira, almost childlike in her devious trickery and sulky disposition. Rooper does, however, struggle with the ghost-like physicality, never really floating but rather bounding around the stage, meaning the audience has to make quite the leap to believe that she comes from the ‘other side’. Altogether the cast are quite a force to be reckoned with, that is until the deceptively doddery figure of Angela Lansbury hones into view. Like Charles we initially see her as merely outlandish, with a ridiculous frizzy red wig and bohemian attitude but Mrs Lansbury’s very look induces fits of laughter. Her deeply felt conviction in the mystical comes up against the sceptical assembled group and the more her dignity is shaken, the funnier she becomes. Many will know Lansbury as the iconic Jessica Fletcher from the long-running television show Murder, She Wrote, but this 83 year old actress brings over 65 years of stage experience to the role of Madame Arcati and boy does it show. Just as her character is searching for other worldly vibrations, she too vibrates with energy, twitching with delight at the thought of a ghostly presence or performing her strange dance that doubles as a summoning ritual. The years spent treading the boards’ has given her the confidence to skip over the punchy one-liners of cowardspeak, building up a rhythmic momentum to land the mother of all jokes. Again and again the five-time Tony Award-winner uses this jazz run effect, always building on the last until the audience are in fits. Like a fine wine, age and maturity gives the best results.

Again and again the five-time Tony Award-winner uses this jazz run effect, always building on the last until the audience are in fits.

Set designer Simon Higlett has kept things simple but elegant. The action of the play all takes place in an opulent lounge, so he has opted for french windows with cliché white silk billowing curtains as the gateway in and out of the spirit world. The practical effects when an invisible spirit causes chaos in the room are tame and given the situation, it feels like some inventive choices were missed here. However, the climatic ending induced quite a few gasps from the audience.

Blithe Spirit does not possess the emotional fire of Coward’s other work such as Private Lives or The Vortex, but what it lacks in substance, it makes up for in situational comedy. It is a gentle play that leaves you brimming with a quiet joy.

Blithe Spirit runs at the Gielgud Theatre until 7 June 2014.

Blithe Spirit