REVIEW: Blithe Spirit, Gielgud Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Serena Evans, Charles Edwards, Angela Lansbury, Janie Dee, Simon Jones. Photo: Johan Persson
Serena Evans, Charles Edwards, Angela Lansbury, Janie Dee, Simon Jones. Photo: Johan Persson

Blithe Spirit
Gielgud Theatre
8 May 2014
5 Stars

You know that feeling you get when your perfect dessert is placed before you? And whatever that dessert is, this time it is perfectly made. The crust crisp and delicious but with a zest of originality; the filling precisely right, tangy or sweet, or both, in exactly the right proportions and thick and seductively compelling; the topping, perfectly formed, a stark contrast to the filling but effortlessly complementary. And then, just when you think it can’t be better, the server produces either a dollop of gourmet triple cream or vanilla bean ice-cream and it seems as though nothing will ever be this good again. A remarkable feeling.

On very rare occasions, theatrical experiences can produce a very similar sensation. And so it was tonight at the Gielgud Theatre where Michael Blakemore’s utterly perfect production of Noél Coward’s improbable farce, Blithe Spirit, is playing.

It is sublime, divine and genuinely amusing, in equal proportions. It is the kind of starry gorgeous evening that the West End was once famous for hosting night after night in theatre after theatre. Old fashioned, slick, beautifully judged nonsense. A glorious confection every mouthful of which deserves savouring.

This is not the first time Blakemore has helmed Blithe Spirit. He did it four years ago on Broadway, with two of the cast who are in this cast. This production, in absolutely every way, is superior.

Perhaps this is not surprising, because Blithe Spirit is very English in every aspect. It skewers class, society, fashion, newspapers, style, trends, and pretty much every aspect of marriage in the lofty middle classes or lower upper classes. It’s funny and silly and ridiculous, but awash with style and class. Totally English.

People often mistake what makes this play memorable. It’s not Madame Arcati, the dotty fruit-cake with a penchant for seance and ectoplasm. No, the play rises or falls on the Condomine family, Charles and his two very different wives, Ruth and Elvira.

These three carry the weight of the play. If they do not work – perfectly – the play cannot work. It simply can’t.

Blakemore has made no mistakes here.

As the suave, debonair and fastidious Charles, the superb Charles Edwards is absolutely magnificent. Not a single line is delivered wrongly; every aspect of the character is mined, illuminated and spectacularly delivered. His rhythms with both wives and Arcati are truly delightful. It’s just a trim, taut and totally terrific performance in every respect. The best Charles I have ever seen.

Janie Dee is immaculately fabulous as the second wife, Ruth. She is smart, assured and bristling with intelligence, the perfect foil for the suave Charles that Edwards provides. There is so much splendour in everything she does, from her casual movement of Elvira’s photograph on the piano, to her outrage at Charles’ apparent rudeness when he first encounters Elvira’s ghost, to her amusement at Arcati’s incompetence to the glorious moment when, after her death, she bonds with Elvira and they paw each other, like sisters in distress, on the sofa. Dee is gorgeous, utterly gorgeous as Ruth, the best I have ever seen.

Elvira can be a tricky role. She is a ghost so it is difficult to place her properly in the comedy. But Jemima Rooper has no trouble and is easily the best Elvira I have ever seen. The blonde bob is perfect, giving her a clear Thoroughly Modern Millie feel which suits the character perfectly. Partly ethereal, partly earthy, all woman, all seductress, all trouble, Rooper romps around the stage flinging her arms and chiffon folds in ways that would make Endora blush. She is perfect; beguiling and antagonising to Charles, vicious to and then bonded with Ruth, disparaging of Arcati – Rooper makes the shadowy Elvira pulse with life and a certain clear truth.

Together, this triangle provides the perfect serving of Coward flummery.

They are aided and abetted in everything they do with wonderful costumes from Simon Higlett (who also provides a delightfully period set, with glorious billowing curtains that can be both sensual and scary), marvellous lighting from Mark Jonathan and some perfectly divine scene change music courtesy of Christine Ebersole and Lawrence Yurman.

But that is not all.

As the Bradmans, Simon Jones and Serena Evans are tip-top country gentry. Affable and stupid, vague and up-for-anything, both characters are splendidly realised, touchingly real, haplessly gormless. I loved everything about them.

Edith, the maid who does everything too speedily and too clumsily, is a part that can be unbearable in the wrong hands. But Patsy Ferran finds a simple and completely original take on the part. This Edith seems simple, possibly even mentally challenged, but that just serves to accentuate her comedy, make her endearing and wrong foots those who don’t know the plot. She is a comic gem.

At 88 years of age, Dame Angela Lansbury is a marvel simply for stepping foot on stage. But to play Madame Arcati at that age, 35 years older than Margaret Rutherford was when she seared her name on the role in David Lean’s film, is quite mind-blowing. Especially given how really wonderful she is in the role.

True, she is more giving us Angela Lansbury playing Madame Arcati than a wholly realised Madame Arcati, but it doesn’t really matter. She is sensational.

She seems much more limber, more at ease, more relaxed, more composed, more sure of herself, more extremely zany, than she did four years ago on Broadway. True, she does not ride in on a bicycle here, but in every other way the energy and life she imbues this alarmingly silly old duffer with is startling. She will do anything for a laugh and given how often her co-stars teetered on corpsing, she improvises too. There is nothing about her performance not to enjoy. I don’t expect to ever see a more memorable or unforgettable Madame Arcati.

Michael Blakemore is a genius. His cast is perfect.

This is likely to be the smooth, delicious comedy revival of the year, if not the decade.

Edwards is the crust, Dee the filling, Rooper the topping and Dame Angela, indubitably, the cream/ice-cream.

Mouth watering perfection.

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