Robert Tanitch reviews Blithe Spirit at Gielgud Theatre, London W1
40 years ago I saw Angela Lansbury in the musical Gypsy in which she played Gypsy Rose Lee’s ambitious mother. I count her singing and acting of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, especially the dramatic, “Momma Won’ Let Go”, as one of the great musical theatre performances I have seen.
I wish I had seen Lansbury in Mame and Sweeney Todd on Broadway. I did see her in Edward Albee’s All Over and enjoyed it so much that I saw it twice in one week. I also much admired her on film as the ruthless mother in Richard Condon’s political thriller, The Manchurian Candidate.
Television viewers will remember Lansbury as the detective novelist in the long–running series, Murder She Wrote. And now she is back in the West End and at 88 young she is playing Madame Arcati, the eccentric bicycle-riding medium, a role which Noel Coward wrote for Margaret Rutherford.
It is not the leading role but it is the role which everybody remembers and since then has been played by such actresses as Beryl Reid, Elizabeth Spriggs, Dora Bryan, Hattie Jacques, Cecily Courtneidge, Peggy Mount, Anna Quayle, Penelope Keith, Fenella Fielding and Alison Steadman.
Lansbury’s performance, apart from a very funny dance she does to get her in the right mood for spiritualism, is particularly notable for its seriousness and underplaying.
A writer invites the medium to conduct a séance. He is writing a book on the occult and wants to observe her in action. He and his wife think it will be good for a laugh. They think spiritualism is a lot of hocus-pocus – until she raises his first wife from the dead.
The situation of a man haunted firstly by one dead wife and then two dead wives is excellent but it takes too long to set up. The waspishness and petty jealousies are in the expert comic hands of Charles Edwards, Janie Dee and Jemima Rooper; but there is a surprising amount of dead wood in the script which should have been cut long ago.
The prospect of imminent death concentrates the mind. Noel Coward’s improbable farce was written in five days during World War Two at the height of the Blitz. The phenomenal wartime success (1,997 performances) was precisely because it took a flippant view of mortality and because it also held out a hope of life after death and reunion with loved ones.
It might be interesting one day to revive Blithe Spirit in its wartime setting. The audience at its 1941 premiere in order to get to the theatre had to walk across planks placed over the rubble caused by an air raid.