Saturday, 15 March 2014

Angela Lansbury lights up London

Dame Angela gets into the spirit of things
The West End has not seen crowds queuing outside a stage door as they are at the Gielgud Theatre for many a year, according to some.

In which case, they clearly didn’t see the crowds waiting to catch a glimpse of Daniel Radcliffe or Jude Law after The Cripple of Inishmaan and Henry V respectively.

But it says an awful lot about the star billing of Dame Angela Lansbury that the crowds outside the venue for Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit have been so large that barriers have been required.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Coward’s farce features a writer, Charles Condomine, who invites a medium to his house for an evening, as part of his research for a new novel.

Unfortunately, although he, his wife Ruth and their neighbours, the Bradmans, are set for a good, sceptical giggle, the séance goes awry when Madame Arcarti actually brings forth the ghost of Elvira, Condomine’s dead first wife.

Since nobody else can see or hear her, he initially passes his own startled reaction off as a bit of a wheeze, but Elvira has a plan of her own in mind.

Suffice it to say that mayhem ensues.

This revival is an unalloyed pleasure. While Lansbury is the big name here, there is not a weak member of the cast.

Although most of the names may not be household ones, the rest of the cast is stacked with experience – apart from Patsy Ferran as the maid, Edith, for whom this marks her professional debut.

She is, though, absolutely wonderful, and shows both great comic timing and skill in physical comedy.

Simon Jones and Serena Evans as the Bradmans make the most of the most limited roles in the piece, while Jemima Rooper as Elvira, Charles Edwards as Charles and Janie Dee as Ruth are all wonderful.

And then there is Dame Angela herself.

I booked primarily because of this opportunity – it’s 40 years since she last graced a stage in her home country; little less than the time since I was taken to the cinema to see Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Her performance then as Eglantine Price, a sort of prototype Harry Potter, gave me enormous pleasure at the time and has continued to do so down the subsequent decades.

There have been films and TV and theatre aplenty since then. She has ranged from Cold War villainess Mrs Iselin in  The Manchurian Candidate, to light-hearted detective fiction writer and crime solver Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wroteto starring in Broadway musicals from Mame to the original version of Stephen Sondheims chamber opera, Sweeney Todd, to voicing a tea pot in Disneys Beauty and the Beast.

Why wouldn’t you love her?

Anyway, she doesn’t disappoint. Great presence, exemplary timing and wow, delightful physical comedy – at 88!

Her Arcarti is a deliciously dotty early hippy – who quaffs martinis in seconds and is addicted to cucumber sandwiches.

Bedknobs & Broomsticks: my falling-for-Angela moment
Director Michael Blakemore, who directed her in the same role on Broadway in 2009 – for which she one of her five Tonys – does a magnificent job here.

Coward’s comedy relies on absolutely perfect timing – and that’s what we experienced.

Blakemore has also made a subtle but very effective decision not to have the cast speaking in the sort of overly clipped tones that one associates with the writer himself.

Yes, it’s all proper Home Counties accents, but that does mean it has a touch less obvious theatricality about it.

And a final note of praise for the design and costumes by Simon Higlett, Bill Butler and Martin Pakledinaz. Goodness – the gorgeous lilac velvet number worn by Ruth in the opening scenes is almost enough to make me renounce my inner beach bum!

Blithe Spirit may be light as a feather – it cheered audiences up throughout most of WWII – but goodness, life is far too short to be perpetually serious. And laughter is a wonderful medicine.

Since Lansbury – along with that other British National Treasure, Julie Andrews – has been labeled ‘high kitsch’ by some who, presumably, consider themselves as being part of a cultural elite, I conclude here with a link to footage from the 1987 Tony Awards, together with Bea Arthur, reprising their duet, Bosom Buddies, from Mame.

After all, if Dame Julie is ‘high kitsch’, there can be no doubt that Bea qualifies too, and if I love them all and that makes me a lover of ‘high kitsch’, then so bloody be it.

And that clip is a perfect example of why any snobbery over such entertainment is totally misplaced.

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