Angela Lansbury’s star power shines brightly in a richly enjoyable production of one of Noel Coward’s most inventive comedies. It’s on stage at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto following runs on Broadway and in London. “BLITHE SPIRIT, a satirical comedy about the occult was written in 1941 while Coward was involved in covert operations as a member of the British Secret Service. In a sense it bookends another Coward confection, “Private Lives” written in 1930. Both plots allow audiences’ personal peeks at the inner turmoil of intimate relationships trapped in exaggerated situations.
Age hasn’t dimmed the veneer of the plot nor its star. The humor still startles and delights. Sir Noel wrote it in the darkest days of the Second World War and considering the darkness of the era, the work seems downright heroic given its determinedly frivolous attitude to the morality of the time. Veteran stage director Michael Blakemore is 85. His star, Angela Lansbury, who plays that delightfully eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, is on the cusp of 89, so age is not a negative factor. The former Mrs. Fletcher brings astonishing energy and comic panache to her performance. Director and superstar display the friskiness of youth, or at least heart. There’s a lightness of touch from Blakemore’s direction which captures the bracing heartlessness of this deliciously dark amusement.
However, it’s also a comedy that makes you lightly quiver. Charles Edwards, who’s appeared on television’s “Downton Abbey,” displays a relaxed attitude as remarried widower writer Charles Condomine doing research for his upcoming novel about mystical forces. Charles decides to host a séance. But his plan to expose quirky clairvoyant Madame Arcati as a fake backfires. Supernatural silliness ensues as the mad medium conjures up the ghost of not only his dead wife Elvira (Jemima Rooper), but plenty of laughs as well! Charles learns that Elvira, dead these seven years misses him, and wants him to join her in the afterlife, as soon as possible. When Madame Arcati leaves after the séance, she is not aware that she has caused Elvira to appear. Charles (and audience) can see and hear Elvira, but no one else can. Current wife Ruth (Charlotte Parry) thinks her husband has gone insane, until a floating vase, courtesy of Elvira, is handed to her out of thin air. Ruth is forced to accept the strange truth and try to come to terms with the ghostly Elvira who makes every effort to disrupt her marriage and reclaim Charles as her husband. Married to Ruth for five years, Charles is caught in a trap. Although they both had been unfaithful, he claims to have loved her. He still tries to convince Ruth, his living wife that she is currently the love of his life.
The farces of the supernatural are at work in this ghostly battle of the sexes, and the ex’s. Edwards brings out both the urbane wit and the vanity of Condomine, who doesn’t love either of his wives nearly as much as he loves himself, and gets maximum value from the comedy’s disconcertingly bitter ending. Lansbury, commanding attention for her celebrity status, wins kudos for her interpretation of the central character. There’s no grandmotherly demeanor as her voice swoops and soars with superb grandeur while engaged in an extraordinary vibrating dance ritual as she goes into a trance. An upper age senior that physically moves with the ease of middle age, is cause for gasps of delight and artistic appreciation for Dame Angela’s energetic dexterity. Lansbury’s brisk, gin-guzzling medium is clearly nobody’s fool. Vocally Lansbury is cutting with her sharp put-downs when she feels that her hosts aren’t taking her character’s psychic gifts as serious as they should be. To them, Madame Arcati is transparently bonkers.
Charlotte Parry plays the put upon Ruth with the suggestion she’s a woman whose love for her husband is already beginning to ebb into bitterness. Jemima Rooper is the ghostly Elvira with a mixture of mischief and sexuality that is downright bewildering, making one wonder about feelings of fancying a ghost. It may appear bewildering but Rooper scores with a beguiling, teasing performance. As well, don’t overlook a little gem of a performance from Susan Louise O’Connor as the terrified maid, Edith. She plays the character with an edginess trying to cope within the rigid confines of her duties. Edith would never fit in with the downstairs servants at Downton Abbey.
To say the whole show is a treat undermines its full value as entertainment in capturing the elegance of 1930s English upper class snobbery. A comic eeriness floods the atmosphere as curtains billow spookily and unseen ghosts throw things around trashing the well ordered living room dominating the stage. The set design splendidly captures the bracing heartlessness of the comedy as Coward turns cruelty into bracing humor. Director Blakemore’s production deftly mixes the wit and the underlying coldness of the piece like a dry martini.
The much admired Lansbury won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in the 2009 Broadway revival. Further acclaim was heaped on the actress when the show transferred to London’s West End. “Blithe Spirit” continues at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre through March 15.