Blithe Spirit, much like Coward's Private Lives which ran at the Gielgud last year, is one of those plays that is revived almost constantly. However, it is a play which I had never actually seen, yet it was a plot which I was vaguely familiar with. Novelist Charles Condomine is writing a new story about a homicidal medium, and calls on the services of local eccentric Madame Arcati for research. He and his wife and friends scoff and guffaw at Arcati, but Charles is left eating his words when she conjures up the ghost of his dead first wife. However, only he can see her, making for much comic mayhem.
It is a brilliant play and immaculately constructed. The dialogue fizzes and is hilarious. The piece is fast-paced and never lets up, but the real making of this production is the cast. The always reliable Charles Edwards holds the piece together brilliantly as Condomine, with his cut-glass accent and perfectly coiffed hair he seems born to perform Coward. He is matched by Janie Dee as his spiky and worried wife. Jemima Rooper is clearly relishing playing the spirit of his late wife, constantly causing mischief with childish aplomb (all while dressed in a rather terrible wig). Newcomer Patsy Ferran is comes close to stealing the show in the small role of the goofy, eye-rolling maid.
What makes this cast so impressive is that they are in no way overshadowed by the presence of a bona fide stage and screen legend. Angela Lansbury hasn't been seen on the London stage in nearly forty years. In recent years she has knocked up a slew of Broadway credits and here reprises her Tony Award-winning turn as Madame Arcati. Aged 88, she dances around the stage like a woman half her age and hits each cue perfectly. It is a plum role that could easily be overdone, but Lansbury plays it with grace and energy and is very funny. While she may be being fed lines through an earpiece and be using a microphone (which would account for the large ringlets of hair covering her ears), it does not show and it is a pleasure to see Lansbury having the time of her life up on stage, something we may not get to see again in the West End.
Michael Blakemore's production is an energetic comic masterpiece. The grand set, coupled with the curtain coming down for each scene change with projections explaining the time and location (with typical Coward witticisms) make it feel like you're watching the production back in the 1940s. It could easily become a gimmick, but it works very well here as it suits the piece perfectly.
Overall, this is a cracking piece of theatre, led by a magnificent cast. The entire audience was beaming and laughing out loud throughout, which was great to be a part of, and it is always a thrill to see someone you've wanted to see on stage for years finally making an appearance, especially one so memorable.
'Blithe Spirit' runs at the Gielgud Theatre until 7 June.