“Hail To Thee Blithe Spirit” With Triumphant West End Return For Angela Lansbury

Photo: Delfont Mackintosh Theatres
Photo: Delfont Mackintosh Theatres

Recently, I took my darling mother to see the London production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. I will freely admit that I was not too sure what to expect when it was first announced; however any doubts I had were dispelled when the casting announcement was posted.

For those who do not know the story of Blithe Spirit, here is the synopsis from the Gielgud Theatre website;

Researching for his new novel, Charles Condomine (Charles Edwards) invites the implausible medium Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury) to his house for a séance. Whilst consumed in a trance, Madame Arcati unwittingly summons the ghost of Charles’ dead wife Elvira (Jemima Rooper). Appearing only to Charles, Elvira soon makes a play to reclaim her husband, much to the chagrin of Charles’ new wife Ruth (Janie Dee). One husband, two feuding wives and a whisper of mischief in the air – who will win in Coward’s unworldly comedy?

This production, which is directed by Michael Blakemore, is the West End revival of the production that Blakemore staged on Broadway in 2009, with Dame Angela Lansbury and Simon Jones also reprising their roles from that production.

First of all I can officially solve the mystery of Downton Abbey‘s Michael Gregson’s disappearance; as Charles Edwards plays novelist Charles Condomine who arranges the seance that starts all the fun. I found his performance throughout highly enjoyable and his comic timing during the scenes with the ghostly Elvira was perfect. This is the first time I had seen Edwards on stage, however I would certainly take any chance to see him again.

The current Mrs Condomine was played by Janie Dee, who was another actress that I had not had the chance to see on stage, and her performance was certainly strong. Dee, played very well against Edwards and the rest of the cast. The latter scenes where she was interacting with the ghostly Elvira, truly allowed the comedy that Coward wrote so well to shine through.

The late Mrs Condomine, Elvira, was expertly played by Jemima Rooper. Rooper was one of the names that I did recognise as I had seen her in the British drama HEX. For me, she was the perfect mix of mischief and malice in her desire to be reunited with her darling Charles no matter what. Cooper and Dee had brilliant chemistry together, which was essential for the closing scenes as the late Mrs Condomines work together to vex Charles. I hope this production will be a springboard to bigger and better things for Rooper.

The other couple in the piece, Dr and Mrs Bradman, played by the original Arthur Dent Simon Jones, and Serena Evans. Evans was not the original choice for the role, as in all the publicity for the production, Mrs Bradman was due to be played by Jones’ fellow Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy star Sandra Dickinson. Ms Dickinson is now the alternate Madame Arcati which means that should any one particularly be a fan of hers there is no guarantee of her being on stage. Perhaps the producers were worried that Dame Angela Lansbury may not be able to complete the entire run, however based on the performance she gave the day I was there, I fear Ms Dickinson will not have much stage time. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance Jones gave as the unbelieving Dr Bradman, and perhaps this was in no small part due to the fact that Jones played the role in the 2009 Broadway show. Evans, on the other hand as the rather stupid Mrs Bradman I felt was the weakest performance of the six actors who appear in the production.  She seemed rather out of her depth which is a shame as she is an actress with an impressive theatre resume.

However, I have to say I was totally blown away by the star of the show, Angela Lansbury, who, at 88, is returning to the West End after a 40 year absence. This is not the first time she has played the role of medium Madame Arcati, she won her fifth Tony following her performance in the 2009 Broadway revival. I was under the misapprehension that perhaps Dame Angela would be helped onto the stage, and she would sit in state as she delivered her performance, well boy was I wrong. She danced and kicked her way round the stage in a manner that would have put actors 60 years her junior to shame.

Her chemistry with the entire cast was obvious as was her joy at being back in front of her home audience. It was also clear that the joy was reciprocated as when Lansbury made her first entrance she did so to rapturous applause, which is something which happens every night apparently. I think what would have shocked many people would have been her impeccable comic timing, as let’s be honest Murder She Wrote was never intentionally funny. However this comic timing did not shock me as I remember fondly her roles in movies such as Bedknobs and Broomsticks and of course who can forget her pivotal role as Mrs Potts in Disney’s classic Beauty and the Beast. I can honestly say the only thing that would have made me enjoy her performance more was had she been able to sing as well. However I shall not complain, and I can say that every standing ovation she receives is so well deserved, and Lansbury looked so humbled at the ovation she received at our show.

I also wish to say congratulations to Patsy Ferran, who plays the maid Edith. This is the first professional engagement for recent RADA graduate Ferran, and many of the biggest laughs of the evening belonged to Ms Ferran. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for her in the future as I think she could be incredibly successful in the West End.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this production of the Coward classic, and I am hoping to grab another ticket for the show before it closes on June 7th.  So if you can please go and see it, you will not regret it.

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I will leave you with the lady herself talking about her West End return.

Kirsty Wallace
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