Photo © Charles Edwards, Angela Lansbury, Janie Dee, Simon Jones and Serena Evans in Blithe Spirit Photo Johan Persson
Angela Lansbury is a living legend of the stage and screen and though she doesn't play the main character in this flawed but enjoyable production of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, her wit, charm and comic timing is more than enough to ensure you leave the theatre smiling.
Charles Condomine (Charles Edwards) is a novelist and, largely as a way of doing some research for his new book, he and his wife Ruth (Janie Dee) invite an eccentric medium Madame Arcati (Angela Lansbury) to hold a séance at their house. But what was meant as a bit of harmless fun backfires when Arcati inadvertently summons the ghost of Charles's first wife Elvira (Jemima Rooper) who has been dead for seven years.
Angela Lansbury is the star attraction but there is quality right through the cast. Charles Edwards is excellent as the man stuck between his feuding wives - one dead, one alive. Those who caught him in Strange Interlude or This House, both at the National, or in the Pravda excerpt at the NT50 Anniversary Gala will remember his brilliant comic timing and all of that is on show here again.
Janie Dee also shines as his second wife, Ruth. An Olivier award winning actress, she is perfect as the wife trying to keep up appearances as her husband unravels with the return of his first wife. Her talents really shine with the wonderful Coward dialogue and her delivery is so sharp and punchy that the laughs just roll almost every time she speaks - a wonderful example being, on enquiry where Elvira's ghost is, she gets the biggest laugh of the night for replying with "My husband has driven her into Folkestone."
The play itself is showing its age however. Its politics seem quite borderline in this day and age. A comedy about a man desperately trying to escape his nagging and controlling ex-wives may sound like the start of a bad Les Dawson joke but Noel Coward's dialogue is sharp enough and witty enough to just about keep this comedy out of a gender minefield.
The set design is also a little jarring. The contemporary interior with its modern art, Laura Ashley sofas and John Lewis cushions doesn't sit well with the 1940s dialogue, delivery style and costumes.
But all of this, I suppose, is a little irrelevant given that this show comes across as little more than a vehicle for Angela Lansbury. Certainly her every move was greeted with adoration from the audience. As soon as she stepped onto the stage, the crowd, in a very un-British display of adoration, gave Lansbury a rapturous round of applause even before she'd said a word.
But there's no doubt that the legend delivers. Angela Lansbury's performance as the eccentric Madame Arcati is spot on. Her melodramatic trances and sprightly, peculiar dancing are all played for laughs but she plays Arcati completely straight, as a woman who completely believes in her talents. Others have played Arcati as a woman who knows she's a fraud but not Lansbury - in her hands, the decision to play as a woman who believes unequivocally in her talents plays off handsomely.
Blithe Spirit isn't Coward's best and this production wasn't without its flaws but the audience all left full of smiles having seen the woman they all came to see and it's hard to knock that. It's not ground-breaking or challenging but Blithe Spirit is a warm, feel-good piece of theatre.
Gielgud Theatre, London
To June 7, 2014