16 March 2014

Blithe Spirit - Gielgud Theatre, Friday 14th March 2014


Charles Condomine, a successful novelist, wishes to learn about the occult for a novel he is writing, and he arranges for an eccentric medium, Madame Arcati, to hold a séance at his house. At the séance, she inadvertently summons Charles's first wife, Elvira, who has been dead for seven years. Madame Arcati leaves after the séance, unaware that she has summoned Elvira. Only Charles can see or hear Elvira, and his second wife, Ruth, does not believe that Elvira exists until a floating vase is handed to her out of thin air. The ghostly Elvira makes continued, and increasingly desperate, efforts to disrupt Charles's current marriage. She finally sabotages his car in the hope of killing him so that he will join her in the spirit world, but it is Ruth rather than Charles who drives off and is killed.
Ruth's ghost immediately comes back for revenge on Elvira, and though Charles cannot at first see Ruth, he can see that Elvira is being chased and tormented, and his house is in uproar. He calls Madame Arcati back to exorcise both of the spirits, but instead of banishing them, she materialises Ruth. With both his dead wives now fully visible, and neither of them in the best of tempers, Charles, together with Madame Arcati, goes through séance after séance and spell after spell to try to exorcise them, and at last Madame Arcati succeeds. Charles is left seemingly in peace, but Madame Arcati, hinting that the ghosts may still be around unseen, warns him that he should go far away as soon as possible. Charles leaves at once, and the unseen ghosts throw things and destroy the room as soon as he has gone.

Edith – Patsy Ferran
Ruth – Janie Dee
Charles – Charles Edwards
Dr. Bradman – Simon Jones
Mrs. Bradman – Serena Evans
Madame Artcarti – Angela Lansbury
Elvira – Jemima Roper
Creative Team:
Written by: Noel Coward
Director : Michael Blakemore
Designer – Simon Higlett
Lighting – Mark Jonathan
Wardrobe – Traipsy Drake (what a name!)
Working in the back of beyond and living in the burbs, I don’t often get into Central London on a Friday night.  Which is probably just as well, as I don’t think I could stand it.  Readers, it was chaos.  Pavements outside every pub were practically impassable, lost tourists stopped in the middle of the path and consulted maps, couples canoodled and dawdled and wrapped their tongues round each others tonsils, idiots looking at mobile phones and iPads wandered  aimlessly from one side of the pavement to the other with eyes fixed on their gadgets, rickshaws trundled along, vans tried to reverse round corners, pedestrians drifted across the road willy-nilly, police sirens wailed and from every doorway in Chinatown came the clang of a different radio station..  At several points on the walk from Charing Cross to Shaftesbury Avenue, Him Indoors drifted in and out of visual contact as I occasionally got caught up in the melee and lost him in the crowd.  On Shaftesbury Avenue itself, just outside the theatre, I got caught up in a particularly intense eddy of humanity and was literally swept past the door for about 50 yards, eventually managing to save myself by clinging to a tree and waiting until the flow had subsided.  Dazed, hot and bewildered I staggered into the foyer resembling Robinson Crusoe washed up on the beach. Even then I thought that the wildlife had followed me through the door as an incredibly sour faced chap wearing trousers of the loudest shade of emerald green I have ever seen waddled by, leaving me briefly wondering if I was being stalked by a mallard with a face like a slapped arse.  Just by my elbow a woman practically screamed to her companion “Do you want coffee or champagne in the interval?”  Personally, I thought, I could do with a couple of valium and a swig of Rescue Remedy if she was offering, but she didn’t.   So was it all worth it?  Of course it was.  Angela Lansbury could have stood on the stage and read from the telephone directory and it would have been worth it. 
On the face of it, Blithe Spirit is a strange animal to be inhabiting the West End.  It’s a gentle, amusing play without flash or dash, wasn’t written by Lloyd Webber, isn’t based on a 1980s film and doesn’t feature animatronic sets that would make Alton Towers look like a local playground.  Its audience isn’t going to be families with screaming kids nor groups of slaggy girls out on the lash.  It has a slightly faded, “Home Counties Rep. Company” air about it.  It is, in fact, a bit of a war horse (as opposed to War Horse).  But it has stood the test of time surprisingly well as an example of period “drawing room comedy”. (albeit with ghosts)  and continues to provide endless ladies of a certain age (Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendall, Joanna Lumley and so on) with employment and endless audiences of a certain age with entertainment.  And, of course, when your Madame Arcarti is a Broadway Legend as well as Hollywood Royalty, entertainment for endless numbers of Gentlemen who prefer the company of other Gentlemen.  Very high PPSI ratio throughout the auditorium. 
Of the assembled cast, only Jemima Rooper’s Elvira really fails to shine.  Her Elvira is not quite classy enough to have been married to Charles Condomine, a little too earthy and a little too earthbound.  I wasn’t terribly impressed with the fact that there was no apparent effort to give her an appropriately ghostly pallor – not only has Elvira been dead for seven years, but she was recovering from the flu at the time of her death, so a touch of pale makeup would have been appropriate.  The only time she looked really ghostly was whenever she stood in a particular spot down stage left where the lighting seemed particularly pale, in contrast to the warmly lit remainder of the stage.  The fact that Ms. Rooper is dark-haired underneath her white wig is unfortunately evidenced by her very dark eyebrows, making her look a little badgerish.  She is totally outclassed  on the stage by Janie Dee’s Ruth, looking considerably better coiffed and attired than the last time I saw her.  In fact, if I hadn’t been told she was Janie Dee, I wouldn’t have recognised her.  Charles Edward’s Charles is a perfect rendition of a part that must be very tempting to over-do.  I would imagine that there is a temptation to make him rather louche and brittle, in the manner of Coward himself.  Apparently Rupert Everett played the role on Broadway before this production transferred to London, and I would imagine that he over-did the role terribly.  The minor parts of Dr. and Mrs. Bradman are well handled, with the part of Mrs. Bradman particularly well defined. Congratulations are due to Patsy Ferran, making her professional debut in the tiny but vital role of Edith, the housemaid – what a production to launch your career with, sharing a stage with a Legend.
They are, of course, only there as padding to support Angela Lansbury, whom everyone has come to see.  I tell you, you wouldn’t know the woman was well into her 80s.  Despite playing the part of Madame Arcarti as much younger than she is herself, Lansbury rarely, if ever, shows any that she is not physically up to the role.  There were a couple of wobbles with the dialogue – several times you can see she is fumbling to remember the exact words, and one major clanger dropped when she gave the date of Daphne’s death (Daphne being her spirit guide) as 1994 rather than 1884 – but the woman is a natural comedian both physically and verbally and oozes class from every pore.  She wisely avoids making her Madame Arcarti over-hearty in the style of Margaret Rutherford, and brings a certain wistful common sense to the role, although she is perhaps a little too frail physically for the audience to believe that she has cycled 8 miles to the Condomine’s house (although, again, this was a tiny slip; in the script, its 7 miles).  At times, there is more than a touch of the Salome Otterbourne about her  portrayal, but who cares?  It’s a stunning performance, full of lovely deft touches of comedy timing  I admit that I did get slightly annoyed with the audience’s tendency to applaud her every entrance and exit, and wonder whether she deliberately “wrong footed” the audience at one point by exiting in her final scene and then suddenly popping back onto the stage halfway through the applause with an interpolated line (not in the original script) about wanting another cucumber sandwich. 
The nit picker in me noticed quite a few slip ups in terms of the stage design. In the first scene we hear a cuckoo calling outside the French windows (and this is commented on in the script), which would make the action set no later than the end of May, and yet one of the flower vases contains a sunflower, a species which doesn’t bloom until late July at the earliest.  There are two vases of flowers on stage during Act 1, both of which remain untouched and unchanged as the curtain rises on Act 2 and yet in Act 2, scene 1, (set the next day), Ruth mentions having done the flowers that morning.  Edith is supposed to bring in a tray of bacon, eggs and toast for breakfast (all of which are referred to in the dialogue), but the toast rack holds only slices of raw bread.  Yes, yes, I know. 
A wonderful evening’s entertainment, well played and excellently cast.  But the entire show rightly belongs to Lansbury who takes the audience in the palm of her hand and walks away with their hearts and minds, for which she rightly and justifiably received a standing ovation at the final curtain.  One final note of approval – there was none of this “communist bowing” that Him Indoors loathes and always comments on; Edith the maid takes a solo bow, followed by the Bradmans, then by Ruth and Elvira, then by Charles and finally Madame Arcarti, giving the audience the opportunity to show their appreciation by rising from their seats as a single unit and giving Lansbury the ovation she deserves.    
Blythe Spirit officially opens tomorrow - I will post up some reviews, and hopefully a youtube video later in the week.

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