Monday, April 21, 2014

The British Birthday Play

After the hard-edged GOOD PEOPLE, it was time to relax into the chiffon-edged comedy of Noël Coward's BLITHE SPIRIT currently revived at the Gielgud Theatre with a long-overdue return to the London stage by Angela Lansbury.  All very appropriate as John Gielgud had starred in and directed an ENSA touring production of the comedy during World War 2.

Michael Blakemore had previously directed Angela Lansbury in 2009 on Broadway in the play which won her a fifth Tony Award and here they are reunited with a new cast and production team.  Unsurprisingly she has rooted herself into the character, making Madame Arcati her own.

Written by Coward in 1941, it was an instant hit - although Graham Greene found it "a wearisome exhibition of bad taste"!  It went on to hold the record for the longest running play in the West End until "The Mousetrap" overtook it in 1957.  David Lean filmed a screen adaptation in 1945 which featured the original players of Arcarti and Elvira, Margaret Rutherford and the delicious Kay Hammond, although this version had an alternate ending.  The play has been revived frequently and I first saw it in 1986 at the Vaudeville Theatre with the perfect cast of Simon Cadell, Jane Asher (Ruth), Joanna Lumley (Elvira) and Marcia Warren as Arcarti.

Author Charles Condomine and his wife Ruth hold a soirée with the village doctor and his wife as well as the local eccentric Madame Arcarti with the ulterior motive of getting her to hold a seance so Charles can get material for a novel he is planning.  During the seance however Arcarti "brings across" the ghost of Charles's glamorous first wife Elvira who has been dead for seven years and only Charles can see her.  Elvira, as capricious in death as in life, causes mischief around the house much to Ruth's anger and Charles' bemusement. 

He soon tires of her behaviour however when he realizes she has her own agenda when she fixes the brakes on his car hoping he will join her forever - but it's Ruth who uses the car first.  Now with two ghostly wives making his life a misery he calls in Madame Arcarti to try and get them back to the other side.  If only she knew how...

Michael Blakemore directs the comic business and Coward's devilishly witty dialogue to expert effect but also suggests the darker tones that lurk in the corners of the Condomine living room.  Written two years into World War II where death was in everyone's consciousness, it's musings on the lingering effects of those departed must have made for a very heightened experience when first presented.

Simon Higlett's set has just the right feel of a home counties living room and also is entertaining in it's own right when the other world encroaches in on it which is also well-evoked by Mark Jonathan's lighting design.

Blakemore's cast also rise to the occasion with one clanging exception.  The ever-reliable Charles Edwards is a delight as Charles, effortlessly spinning his lines with the lightest touch like the deftest of tennis players.  But he also plays a man quietly delighted to be given a change from his second, rather conformist, marriage.  Luckily Edwards is complemented perfectly by Janie Dee as Ruth.  She showed her excellent comic timing time and again particularly in the classic exchange:
  • Charles: Anything interesting in The Times?
  • Ruth: Don't be silly, Charles. 
Ruth can be a tough role - the character who wants to stop the madcap antics usually is - but Janie Dee is such an engaging stage performer that her dry delivery was a joy to behold.

I found the casting of Jemima Rooper to be a miscalculation however.  Her childishly petulant pouts and squeaky voice seemed to belong to a totally different production and more than once I felt she was totally out of her depth with the quality of performance onstage.  Simon Jones and Serena Evans made full use of their considerable experience to fill out the roles of Doctor and Mrs Bradman and Patsy Ferran made the most of the West End debut as Edith, the Condomine's gormless maid.

Needless to say Madame Arcarti's belated entrance on stage provoked a round of applause for Angela Lansbury, you don't get too many of those anymore but somehow within the context of Coward and BLITHE SPIRIT it didn't seem strange at all!  There was the odd stumbled line but that is more than allowed when you're 88 and in the process of giving a performance of pure star quality.  She played Arcarti as an intelligent and engaging authoress but one who didn't suffer fools gladly - I will treasure the exasperated daggers she shot at Mrs. Bradman's clueless questioning.

Yes, she stole scenes with her bizarre little dance in her pre-seance trance or in her delighted responses to Elvira's presence but that's what she's there to do!  Although the role didn't give her the opportunity to touch us in the way her Madame Armfelt did in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC on Broadway in 2010, it was an utter joy to see her on a West End stage and proving that this wasn't a case of stunt star casting - just like Arcarti, she brought sheer magic to us.

All this and being made Dame Angela last week too - it's about time!

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