15th March, 2014 matinee
Please note that I saw a preview of Blithe Spirit. Opening night was 18th March. This was my first time seeing Blithe Spirit and in fact any Noel Coward play.
Director Michael Blakemore reunites with Angela Lansbury in Noel Coward’s 1941 light-hearted comedy on which they collaborated on Broadway in 2009. It is easy to be waspish about a production where the only superlatives that can be said about it are regarding the names on the poster, but I really did think that the play/ production was very good but rarely went into moments of rhapsodic enthusiasm.
As you enter the auditorium, a black and white projection of a book is on the front gauze with the words ‘Blithe Spirit. An improbable farce by Noel Coward’. It is neatly framed in a box and accompanied by wartime music which helps to set up the performance as quaint. It may be a satire on the upper-middle classes in a Britain drawn to a Downton Abbey culture (see Trevor Nunn article), but it is ultimately a piece of what Michael Billington calls ‘quilted escapism and bourgeois refinement’. Coward said that he wrote the play in five days whilst on holiday (supposedly a stress-free one). It may act as an escape from a wartime Britain, but for all its wit, style and blithe spirit, it never quite reaches the dizzying heights of a great farce.
The plot centres on Charles (Charles Edwards) and his wife of five years Ruth (Janie Dee). They invite the elderly, eccentric and possibly fraudulent Madame Arcati (Lansbury) round for drinks and a séance, simply for entertainment but after some bizarre dancing and collapsing into a trance, Arcati delivers nothing but an upturned table and her insistence that there was a ghostly presence. However, Charles (and only him) starts to see his dead, former wife Elvira (Jemima Rooper) and hilarity ensues. The use of dramatic irony, misunderstandings between characters and apparently floating furniture are certainly funny but I laughed only a few times. However, those times I did laugh were at lines such as ‘I might just as easily have been talking about Joan of Arc but that wouldn't necessarily mean that I wanted her to come and live with me’ and she’ll ‘materialise a hockey team’. They are lines which highlight the ridiculousness of the situation at the expense of the characters’ torment – a sign of a good farce.
Charles Dee is excellent as the pestered widower, as is Jemima Rooper as his tormenting deceased wife and Janie Dee as the wound-up second wife. I didn’t realise that Serena Evans was in the cast and she along with Simon Jones offered fine support. I get the feeling that these characters are by no means a massive stretch for the cast and aren’t meant to be, but they are all performed with stylish Coward-like aplomb. I imagine Angela Lansbury will be the focus of many reviews and she is simply great. She may be miked, she may have her lines fed to her and she seems like she occasionally stumbles, but it adds to Arcati’s age, dottiness and fragility. She’s highly convincing but I might have been too distracted that it was Angela Lansbury of Murder, She Wrote fame to fully think that she was embodying the role. I had heard there was an entry round of applause for Lansbury’s first entrance which was expected however American it may be. However, when the audience are clapping some of her exits with uncertainty, I begin to wonder what sort of polite social performance the audience have entered. But she was certainly enjoyable to watch and was appreciated, certainly by her fans.
There are moments in act one which I found slow. Indeed, an elderly lady sitting next to me fell asleep for part of it and there were more snores heard from further down the row. However, it is pleasantly enjoyable and act two is exciting, with the final moments building up to a satisfying sense of farce and frenzy. With Charles fleeing and the house collapsing around him, his final line of “[p]arting is such sweet sorrow” offers a double meaning like the title and is fittingly casual compared to the chaos around him. Indeed, Simon Higlett’s English country house design has some exciting and theatrically delicious treats. There are also some apparent theatrical in-jokes by Coward, such as mentions of things being a mega flop or it being a ridiculous evening.
As the curtain comes down at the end, there is a black and white projection of Noel Coward, implying that the evening belongs to him, although I imagine the lasting image is also of Angela Lansbury’s presence in the cast. Also worth a notable mention, is Patsy Ferran who is making her West End debut as Edith, the maid and strangely the person who plays a part in the plot’s resolution. I really think that she may have got more laughs than Arcati and really is delightful as the country servant with a military upbringing and youthful eagerness.
I remain cynical of the commercial nature of this production and how it has seemingly been staged around its star drawing in audience members who quite rightly want to see her perform. However, it is also this event casting that helps to make it a pinnacle production and will probably make it remembered as one of those special, 'you had to be there' moments in people's theatre-going memories. And even though I appreciate that it may simply not be my cup of tea, I ultimately stand by the lukewarm response from myself and other audience members. But the four stars (rather than three) that I've given it show how I have succumb to the hype that the production easily draws but does not quite live up to. It is a charming production of a very funny play, but by no means a five star theatre-going experience.
Blithe Spirit plays at the Gielgud Theatre until 7th June, 2014.
Reviews coming up of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Mojo, The Book of Mormon, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Waterbabies, A View from the Bridge, Birdland and more.