Angela Lansbury’s mere entrance in Blithe Spirit last night was greeted by an eruption of wild applause. We wanted to thank her before she’d even done anything. Or rather for all she’d done for us thus far; all she’d made us feel and think and dream of; for the role in our lives that she continues to occupy and that we continue to treasure. She provides the comfort of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, the artistry of her musical triumphs on stage (Gypsy, Mame, Sweeny Todd) and some of the most complex and/or appealing and/or comforting performances in a long and varied film career. Take your pick from The Manchurian Candidate, Gaslight, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and so very many others.
Pauline Kael famously said that she didn’t think she could be friends with anyone who didn’t love her Sibyl Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray. I always misremember that and cite it incorrectly as the young maid in Gaslight. She’s so delicious in both that perhaps I can be forgiven for the error. We probably all have our own favourite Angela Lansbury moments. Mine begin with her saloon ‘hostess’ in The Harvey Girls, my first memory of either her or Judy Garland, seen on a little black and white television and the beginnings of my love for both. This is one of my all-time favourite moments on film (though Angela, unbelievably glamorous, appears only towards the end of the clip). There’s something about Judy’s fear in going into the saloon and then the way she blows into the smoking guns that is a comic delight. And of course all of this is followed by Lansbury’s bad-girl sashay at the end. Who could remember that Lansbury was a bad girl or that she could move and pout like that? Too much Jessica Fletcher has made most of us forget. But not I. It’s how I first got to know her.
Blithe Spirit is the perfect theatrical vehicle for an 88 year-old star which is to say it is the perfect vehicle for Angela Lansbury now. The play is from Noel Coward, one of THE great and most long-running of West End hits during WWII, and there’s not a single creak in it. It’s still a marvel of theatrical mechanics. The introduction of the characters, the entrances and exits, the curtains, the spectacle provided by what beings from ‘The Other Side’ can do on our world – all work superbly; thus all the actors get their laughs and a chance to shine, and thus is less of a burden is placed on the undisputable but aging star of the evening. She appears in only a few scenes but they are key ones; they were enough to make Margaret Rutherford a star. It’s a cracker of a role.
The music, many of Coward’s greatest hits plus Irving Berlin’s ‘Always’, is a treat; and the producers are aware of the element of nostalgia in all of this and milk it; the stage is framed as if it were a silent film and as if we are all longing for a Cowardesque past of elegant living, witty sayings, perfectly made plays and great stars – which we, or at least the audience last night and certainly myself at any time, certainly are.
The Gielgud is also a perfect venue for a Noel Coward sophisticated drawing room comedy — intimate, gilded, bijou-y, decorated with caricatures of Coward and Gielgud and Ivor Novello, Beaton photographs of Binkie Beaumont, and an oil painting of Margaret Rutherford. The bar, a round rotunda balcony from which you can lean over with your gin and ogle at the people coming in through the box-office is itself worth the price of admission.
Lansbury’s character, Madame Arcati, is forever associated with Rutherford so Lansbury is not without a challenge on her hands. She only appears in a few scenes and needs to not only get her laughs but also try to efface the memory of Rutherford, one rendered more vivid by being immortalised in David Lean’s film of the play. Lansbury appears dressed like the salacious Salome Otterbourne she played in Death on the Nile but acting like Maggie Smith’s curt companion to Bette Davis in the same film, all brisk common sense. She was a bit wobbly on her lines and her voice was lighter than that of the other actors. To me, she did not efface the memory of Margaret Rutherford in the movie, particularly the relish with which Rutherford pursed her lips and rubbed her hands before starting her communications with ‘The Other Side’. But Lansbury still got all her laughs plus a few more that weren’t there for a marvellous quasi-Egyptian dance she does when she goes to turn off the lights for her séance. At the end, when she got that standing ovation it was not just due to the audience’s gratitude for a lifetime of lovingly remembered work — her career is like a huge box of assorted movie madelaines — as it could be said to have been at her entrance, but for still owning that stage like the star and actress she proved to be; for giving us another reason to love her; and for giving us the chance to show our gratitude personally.
Seen on 1st of March, 2014.