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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Gielgud


  Charles Edwards, Angela Lansbury, Janie Dee, Simon Jones and Serena Evans/ Ph: Johan Persson

There have been far too many revivals of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit when familiarity bred contempt. Happily this is not the case with this durable comedy's latest incarnation, staged with solid flair and invention by Michael Blakemore and, with one exception, cast without stellar names. The exception, of course, is Angela Lansbury, reprising her 2009 Broadway performance as the endearingly dotty Madame Arcati, the medium whose other worldly gifts set the familiar plot in motion.
Written in 1941 at a time when death and destruction was foremost in most people's minds, Coward deliberately set out to give mortality the middle finger by glibly and fearlessly (for the time) confronting it head on as a light-hearted antidote to the grim realities of the war.
Adhering faithfully to the conventions of many West End boulevard comedies of the period, the play (as you probably know) is set in writer Charles Condomine (Charles Edwards) and his wife Ruth's (Janie Dee) middle-class home in Kent and even opens with a comic maid called Edith (Patsy Ferran) in tow. Also on hand are Dr. Bradman (Simon Jones), the Condomine's doctor, and his wife (Serena Evans).
The occasion is a dinner party for Madame Arcati, whom the sceptical Charles, about to begin a novel concerning a fake spiritualist, has invited for purposes of research. The after-dinner entertainment is a séance, during which – and to the accompaniment of Irving Berlin's earworm evergreen "Always" – Charles' first wife Elvira (Jemima Rooper), who died seven years ago, materialises, visible only to Charles.
The comic mileage, rife with misunderstandings, that Coward draws from this basic plot, and the momentum he creates as the situation spirals, almost into farce, is the reason he had no peers when it came to transforming fluff into vintage entertainment. And although there are moments when the sparkle and invention dips, the deftness of the writing and the play's skillful construction invariably come to its rescue. 
The thing about classic Coward is how simple and effortless he makes it all seem. Yet without a cast as accomplished as the one on hand, revivals like Blithe Spirit, Hay Fever, Private Lives and Design for Living can, because of their familiarity, feel like endurance tests. No such qualms here. Blakemore's cast is first rate. I would have liked a more ethereal, quirkier Elvira than Rooper offers, but that's just a quibble. The rest of the company never puts a foot wrong, with Edwards in brilliant form as the urbane, mildly misogynistic Charles, and Dee absolute perfection as his put-upon, understandably miffed wife.
As for the production's raison d'être, it's been worth the 40-year wait for Lansbury's return to the London stage. Her richly nuanced performance resists the temptation to chew up Simon Higlett's serviceable drawing room set without sacrificing any of the character's endearing eccentricity. The ritualistic little dance that precedes her entrance into the spirit world is truly hilarious in its controlled extravagance, and the contemptuous, withering looks with which she specifically signifies her disapproval of the rather silly Mrs. Bradman, shows she has lost none of the comic timing that has defined so much of her long and distinguished career. She is a joy and a treasure and the glowing linchpin of a very classy production.


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