It’s been six years since Angela Lansbury won her fifth Tony for playing Madame Arcati in a Broadway revival of Blithe Spirit. It’s been nearly sixty years since she made her stage debut here in town at the National Theatre. It’s been seventy years since she got her first Oscar nomination.
On opening night, Lansbury (or Dame Angela, perhaps we should call her) brought Blithe Spirit into town and into the National, where her theatre work began those many years ago. Lansbury has had an acclaimed career on film, television, and (most particularly in musicals) in the theatre.
At a time in life when many people are taking the foot off the gas, she has reconquered the stage and toured the world — A Little Night Music in New York, Driving Miss Daisy in Australia, Blithe Spirit in London, L.A., Toronto, and now Washington. At one point in Noël Coward’s comedy, Madame Arcati tells the other characters not to worry about her bicycle ride home; it’s only eight miles. No one, on stage or in the audience, would doubt at all that she’s up to the trip.
Lansbury is inarguably a legend. Her presence is clearly the rationale for this tour. And she doesn’t disappoint in the least. She anchors a production by Michael Blakemore of this old chestnut, a play that could easily show its age and wear out its welcome, but that, here, is clever and fresh and not showing the many miles that the production has racked up. [Lansbury explains why she chose the role in the video below.]
Coward’s 1941 situation comedy is one of the best-remembered and oft-revived of his plays. You probably know its story: mystery writer is researching a new book that involves a medium; he arranges a dinner party at which he intends to observe a local eccentric hold a séance; supernatural wires cross, and his late first wife’s spirit returns, seen and heard by the writer, but not by anyone else, particularly not by his progressively exasperated current wife.
No, Lansbury, despite her long TV run as Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote, is not playing the mystery writer. She plays the eccentric medium, a role created, and played in the 1945 film version, by Margaret Rutherford, whose film portrayal of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in movies like Murder, She Said was a precursor to Jessica Fletcher.
Madame Arcati is the plum role in the play, and Lansbury delivers everything you would expect from it and a little more. She’s dressed in a red wig and flowery frocks with beads and bangles, and you don’t take your eyes off her whenever she is on stage. She handles the broadest and silliest of bits with ease. She has one aside, during a scene when the spirit is on stage but unseen by her, that brought down the house it was so drolly unexpected. But she gives the part a seriousness of intention during the séance and an inherent dignity when she feels that others don’t take her seriously. The performance is a master class on balancing the ridiculous with the real, on achieving a satisfying measure of authenticity while playing farce.
Coward’s plays were frequently vehicles for him (Private Lives, Design for Living, Present Laughter), but for whatever reason, and though the leading role, Charles Condomine, seems as if it would fit him perfectly (and has “mine” as part of the character’s name!), Coward didn’t play the part. It was Rex Harrison in the movie, Clifton Webb on Broadway, and the less-well-remembered Cecil Parker in London. Rupert Everett did it on Broadway opposite Lansbury; here, it is played by Charles Edwards. Edwards was seen on Broadway as the lead in The 39 Steps and on television in Downton Abbey. Charles’ current wife Ruth is played here by Charlotte Parry.
It is up to these two to set the tone of the play, and they do it deftly. Their early exchanges are just brittle enough that you feel as if their obvious affection for each other has a certain aspect of precariousness. Edwards shows us a man used to treading very lightly lest he place a foot wrong, and it sets us up to care about his increasingly desperate efforts to maintain equilibrium. Parry is terrific. She shows us a self-possessed woman who suddenly realizes that she may not know her husband as well as she thought, or hoped. Both roles could easily slide into unrelievedly frantic reaction to the incredible turns of event, but smartly do not.
Melissa Woodbridge as the first wife, Elvira, is new to the part. Her performance was a bit on the kittenish side for my taste, but to be fair, that is called for by the script to some extent, and Woodbridge grows on you as she gets more to do in the second half of the play.
A note about Susan Louise O’Connor, who plays Edith, the maid. If she wasn’t in a play with Angela Lansbury, she would steal the show. Go to love Lansbury; leave loving O’Connor as well. It’s a small role in terms of stage time, but it is so fully realized that the impression she makes is large. There is a piece of business involving a tray and a chair that is something I won’t forget soon. O’Connor did the Broadway run with Lansbury and joined the current tour after the London engagement. It’s a fun echo that Lansbury’s career began as the maid in Gaslight, starring Bergman and Boyer, and here O’Connor scores impressively in another maid role.
The cast is rounded out by Sandra Shipley and Simon Jones as the neighbors who join the séance. Like Edwards, Jones is a familiar face from PBS imports of Brit telly (Brideshead Revisited and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Both he and Shipley find the humanity and humor in parts that could be thankless, and if Jones was familiar to me (I saw him on stage in the original Broadway run of The Real Thing), Shipley was not, and she was great.
Coward, let’s remember, exemplified the kind of early 20th century British theatre against which the “angry young men” of the 50s rebelled. The characters are upper middle class, the attitudes are noblesse oblige — in Coward’s world, the worst thing you can accuse someone of is being a “bad traveler.” Yet, in the play’s defense, the tangled strands of romantic impulses are cannily observed, and the ending (no spoilers, I promise) has a tinge of almost cynical worldliness that stands in contrast to the happy endings that conclude most comedies of his day.
March 11 – 29
The National Theatre
1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20004
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $48 – $108
Tickets or call 202-628-6161
Director Blakemore, the only director ever to win two Tonys in the same year for directing a play and a musical, has not only blown the mothballs off a period piece, but also made sure that this tour remains crisp. Though I think this is its last stop, the soufflé rises easily. There is wonderful detail in the characterizations and the staging, keeping the production three-dimensional and forward propelled. For example, the play ends (again, no spoilers!) with the use of the window curtains to animate a sequence that could otherwise feel anti-climactic and flat. Simon Higlett’s set is lovely, practical, and has a few fun tricks to show us by evening’s end.
The play’s scenes have been rearranged so that its original three acts have been reduced to two. That and the satisfyingly brisk pace combine with some text trimming to keep a play that, uncut, would be close to three hours to the more reasonable two and a half hours, including intermission. Christine Ebersole, the Broadway star who played Elvira during the run in New York, sings tunes (including several by Coward) on tape during the scene shifts, and that’s a treat.
I guess you could quibble about a few small things. Perhaps the first scene when Charles is talking to Elvira, and Ruth thinks he’s talking to her, could have been handled with a tad more clarity. And I wasn’t a big fan of the cutesy scene-setter text that is projected onto the curtain between scenes. But it’s hard to think of a much better production or better case to be made for Blithe Spirit. The direction is marvelous, the design is impressive, and the cast is top-notch.
Most importantly, it’s that rare chance to see a truly legendary star live up to her legend.
North American tour of Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward . Directed by Michael Blakemore . Featuring Angela Lansbury, Charles Edwards, Melissa Woodbridge, Charlotte Parry,Simon Jones, Susan Louise O’Connor and Sandra Shipley . Scenic and costume designs: Simon Higlett . Angela Lansbury’s costume design: Martin Palkedinaz . Lighting design: Mark Jonathan . sound design: Ben Ringham and Max Ringham . Presented at The National Theatre . Reviewed by Christopher Henley.