I can still remember the excitement felt by the ten-year-old me going to see Blithe Spirit in the very self-same Shaftesbury Avenue theatre in 1970 (it were called the Globe when I were a lad). Patrick Cargill as Charles Condomine (I used to love “Father, Dear Father”), Ursula Howells as Ruth (she played Patrick Cargill’s ex-wife in that sitcom) and Beryl Reid, would you believe, as Madame Arcati. God I felt grown-up. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have a memory that we saw another production in the not too distant past, maybe at the Wycombe Swan, but I can’t find the programme, and all other details about the show escape me. I have a feeling it wasn’t that great.
It is an extremely funny play though. I’m sure you know the premise – Charles and Ruth Condomine host a séance with their friends the Bradmans; and it’s all run by the medium Madame Arcati, going into hokey trances to connect with the “other side”. Unfortunately for Charles, she’s a bit too successful and brings back Charles’ first wife, the late Elvira, as a ghostly apparition that only he (and we) can see. Elvira’s quite a handful and Ruth doesn’t appreciate being sidelined, as Charles spends a bit too much time catching up with his dead missus. Things come to a head as Elvira gets more and more jealous, and mischievous, with rather bizarre consequences. In the end, Charles’ life comes crashing down upon him. Literally.
Michael Blakemore directs with a nice sense of fun and ease, getting the best out of his talented cast. Janie Dee (always a favourite) is a fantastic Ruth, elegant and charming at first, but also delightfully furious at Charles’ behaviour and then perplexed at trying to understand exactly what’s going on with her barmy husband and his pre-enamorata. Jemima Rooper is a very mischievous and cheeky Elvira, who successfully conveys the sense of a girlish, immature wife taken from her husband too soon – although I thought she could have been a bit more petulant at times. Charles Edwards plays Condomine as an avuncular fellow, who rather enjoys the continuation of his present and past relationships more than is good for him. I have a recollection that Patrick Cargill was a far more exasperated Condomine – by comparison, Mr Edwards is rather Zen in accepting his lot. There’s some excellent support from Serena Evans as the tactless Mrs Bradman, Simon Jones as her respectable Doctor husband, and Patsy Ferran as the breakneck-speed Edith, one of Noel Coward’s hallmark comedy maids.
Of course in 1941, this was structured as a classic three act play, but nowadays we’re not allowed to linger in a theatre that long any more. So the sole interval comes after the original Act Two Scene One. On the plus side, I rather liked the stage projections that explained the time and place for each scene; however I did also feel that many of the scenes ended rather suddenly, without a real visual or verbal punchline. Whether the “curtain down” wasn’t snappy enough, or if Coward got it wrong, I’m not sure.
But, make no mistake, there’s only one reason why the best part of 1000 people have crammed into the Gielgud Theatre for eight performances a week – and that’s the appearance of Dame Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati. It’s been 40 years (apparently) since she was last on the London stage, so she’s definitely overdue a visit. Whether you think of her as Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote, as the over-the-top Mrs Otterbourne in the film of Death on the Nile, as Mrs Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd or (like me) Miss Price singing Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, she’s bound to have a place somewhere in your heart.
At the age of 88 (according to Wikipedia) she is in incredible form. Her Madame Arcati is every bit as loopy as Coward intended, daftly bouncing around the stage as she communes with Daphne her control, crashing to the sofa in the warm up to her trances, jangling in her Boho beads and generally running highly eccentrically amok. She is the epitome of the stagey, ham character that makes the Condomines and the Bradmans mock her behind her back. She does a very nice line in withering looks, especially when Mrs Bradman is being particularly dim and inappropriate; and she also chews on her words in that thoughtful way that makes her face frown with concentration – an homage, maybe, to the original Madame Arcati, Margaret Rutherford, with whom I always associate that particular oral tic.
Given the resounding round of applause on her first entry, and the appreciative rounds of applause when she leaves the stage, never has there been a less surprising standing ovation at curtain call than for Dame Angela. I reckon we’d have all stood up even if she’d been lousy – but the fact that she was excellent made it all the more rewarding.
The result is a very enjoyable theatrical experience where you can both enjoy a good production of a very funny old play, and also share in the magic of witnessing Dame Angela before your very eyes, still at it. I doubt if there are many tickets still available – but if you get to see this, you’re in for a treat.