A new production of Noel Coward's classic occult farce, Blithe Spirit, opened in San Francisco last night by way of London, where star Angela Lansbury earned nightly standing ovations at the Gielgud Theater in this same production last spring. Lansbury has portrayed the lovably eccentric medium Madame Arcati in this play twice in the last half-decade, earning herself a record fifth Tony Award for a Broadway production in 2009. The London production is being called the "definitive" one, though, and intact from that version in the SF company are actors Charles Edwards in the role of Charles, Simon Jones in the role of Dr. Bradman, and Jemima Rooper in the role of Elvira and in the hilarious supporting role of the maid, Edith, is Susan Louise O'Connor who appeared with Lansbury in the Broadway production.
Lansbury is, truly, a wonderful actress and a national treasure of both the United States and Britain, with a career spanning over 70 years at this point, most notably with twelve years on Murder, She Wrote. This is rumored to be her last tour in a stage production, and at the age of 89 who can blame her. I will say, though, that having seen the Broadway production six years ago, she seems more sprightly than ever and in better health now I recall her being hoarse and having a bit of a cough when I saw her then.
In Blithe Spirit she's gotten to return to her roots on the English stage, portraying a quirky character who incites a bevy of trouble for the show's protagonist Charles after he invites her to host a séance in his home.
There will be spoilers ahead, because there's no way to review this incredibly funny play otherwise, so, be warned.
Coward's 1941 play, a hit in both London and on Broadway in its original production, played for several years in both cities and went on to inspire the musical High Spirits. And the new production is extremely faithful, adding a few stage effects and some great interstitial music from the period, in new recordings by Christine Ebersole that serve to divide the various scenes in each act. The pleasure of Coward, as always, is his crisp banter and effete comic genius, and all of that comes packaged in this "improbable comedy" alongside a zany premise about ghosts and the afterlife that remains too witty to feel clichéd.
Charles, a novelist, has been married to Ruth (Charlotte Parry) for five years, and one summer evening they've invited over a local doctor friend and his wife along with a local clairvoyant and medium, Madame Arcati, from whom Charles is hoping to learn some "tricks of the trade" for a character he's writing. But instead of a night of amusement, Madame Arcati's séance succeeds in summoning the spirit of Charles' first wife Elvira, dead now seven years, and Elvira refuses to leave. Coward gets to work at his comedic best with the simple premise that only Charles can see and hear Elvira, but Ruth keeps thinking he's speaking to her until of course Ruth comes to believe that Elvira's spirit is, indeed, living with them.
The farce that ensues as Charles and Ruth attempt to exorcize Elvira from their lives still holds up for a modern audience, and the brisk timing of Jones, Rooper, and Parry in their roles deserves much credit for this. But it is Lansbury, of course, that everyone has come to see, and this is a role that is tailor-made for her combination of joviality, wide-eyed comic mugging, and the kind of sing-song mischievousness she brought to roles like her Tony winning turn as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd. She is terrific throughout, returning in four different scenes as Charles and Ruth call her back to help with their ghost problem.
The direction by Michael Blakemore is superb, as is the surprise-filled English country home set by Simon Higlett. But fans of Lansbury likely only want to be assured that she's still able-bodied (at 89!) to prance and dance about the stage as much as she does, and I can assure you she is. She got a standing ovation last night, and she'll most certainly continue to. Grab a ticket while you can.
Blithe Spirit plays through February 1st at the Golden Gate Theater. Get tickets here.