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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Blithe Spirit
Gielgud Theatre  Spring 2014

This is a not-wholly-successful revival of a classic Noel Coward comedy, but Coward at half-power is still funnier than most other writers, so there is fun to be had. 

This is the one about the happily remarried widower who attends a séance and accidentally raises the ghost of his first wife, who mischievously enjoys the fact that only he (and we) can see and hear her. 

The fun comes from his confusion and panic, the consternation caused the living wife who thinks it is she he is constantly telling to shut up or go away, the general elegance and wit that are Coward signatures, and the broader comedy of the dotty local medium who raises the ghost and then tries to exorcise her. 

This revival has been built around Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, and therein lies one of the problems. As delightful as Lansbury is, and as good it is to have her back on the London stage after too long an absence, Madame Arcati is not the star role. 

The actress playing her is unquestionably meant to steal every scene she's in, but she's only in a couple, and she's not meant to carry the whole play. 

Put another way, the comic backbone of the play is meant to be the partly supernatural triangle, and if those actors are cast and directed to be supporting players, the energy and comedy levels are going to drop in precisely the scenes in which they're meant to be highest.

(Imagine a production of Hamlet built as a star vehicle for the actor playing Claudius. However great he was and however good everyone else was, the play would be seriously unbalanced.) 

Actually, Angela Lansbury gives us a relatively subdued Arcati – I've seen others carry the character's eccentricity to more hilarious heights – but there's no doubt that she has some brilliant moments, largely silent ones, like the withering look she snaps at anyone who questions her powers or the bizarre little repertoire of dance steps she goes through on her way toward a trance.

(On the other hand, in her dialogue scenes you sometimes get the sense that the character's dottiness is being used as a cover for the actress's uncertainty about her lines.) 

Charles Edwards as the unintended mystic bigamist comes closest among the others to capturing the Coward style of wit and elegance. Jemima Rooper plays the ghostly Elvira more as mischievous gamin than elegant succubus, sacrificing sophistication and sexual allure for light comedy, and Janie Dee marches steadfastly through the thankless role of living wife Ruth, generously serving as straight man and feed to the others. 

Michael Blakemore's direction is far too languid and lacking in snap for a comedy much of whose humour is based on wit and repartee. With one notable exception (a perfectly executed doubletake by Charles Edwards), every scene peters out to a poorly-timed whimper rather than a bang, and too often the show just ambles or stands still when it wants to bounce along. 

This is, then, a production more successful in moments – an isolated line reading here, a bit of business there – than as a whole. There aren't quite enough of them to carry the evening, but if you add in the pleasure of Angela Lansbury's company, you may find yourself satisfied.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Blithe Spirit - Gielgud Theatre 2014 

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