It’s a bit weird, really. You can’t be anything but as pleased as punch to see Dame Angela Lansbury swing onto the stage to a firm round of applause, and when she’s got her trance on she’s as sprightly as anything. But if it wasn’t for the make-up plastered all over Jemima Rooper’s Elvira, you could be forgiven for mistaking Dame Angela’s dotty medium for the titular ghost. There’s a slight warble on the microphone concealed among her pearls, leaving her voice to quaver amid her un-mic’d fellow cast members, and she’s got two Princess Leia cinnamon-roll swirls of red hair covering her ears and (presumably) earpiece. It’s a bit Coward by way of The Wooster Group, but unfortunately, apart from this ripple of the uncanny, the rest of Michael Blakemore’s stately production is a leisurely stroll through a play which, to be kind, has probably had its day.
Coward has taken a sprinkling of spirituality to doll up his farce of comic infidelities and sexual morality, creating a play that barely brushes against weightier metaphysics and contents itself to repetition (with variation) of a single joke. It’s the one where Charles says something to his ghostly first wife Elvira but it’s heard and misinterpreted by his corporeal second wife Ruth. It’s a good joke. Can’t knock it, really. But when, apart from brief diversions with a dotty séance and a crap bit about an awfully inexperienced maid, that’s all you’ve really got, things begin to look a little thin.
The cast is basically first-rate. Janie Dee is perfectly frosty as snobbish bore Ruth, Rooper is mischievously sensuous as vampish Elvira, Patsy Ferran makes a strong debut as the aforementioned shit maid and Serena Evans might be the best of the lot as slightly gauche Mrs Bradman. But that’s the trouble, really. It’s just a selection of dusty, sexist female archetypes and stereotypes wheeled out to torment good old poor old Charles. Bloody women.
Not that Charles gets that much more meat on his bones, though Charles Edwards makes a good fist of him here. However it’s sad to see the brilliant Simon Jones more or less wasted in the underwritten role of Dr Bradman.
Despite the Lansbury Support System (LSS) that she’s encumbered with, Dame Angela is terrific. She’s as astounding a comic actor as she’s ever been, and actually captures an acidity that’s missing or muted elsewhere. In particular, her cold reception of Mrs Bradman is a total delight.
When Blithe Spirit premiered at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1941, The Times spoke of it in the same breath as The Importance of Being Earnest, and while there are certainly similarities (not least in their tittering misogyny), Wilde’s play outclasses Cowards on every level. Wilde plays with class while Coward merely plays it; Wilde subjects sex and status to a racking, while Coward has a lark with them. And crucially, Wilde’s play is actually still capable of being hysterically funny. The biggest surprise with Blithe Spirit is how few really zinging lines there are. Hay Fever, this ain’t. The gags that fall right are brilliant, but they’re thin on the ground and get thinner as the play rolls on.
And despite perfectly serviceable direction from Blakemore, it rolls quite slowly. The lengthy blackouts between scenes, accompanied by projected title-cards, add little atmosphere and considerable running time. Blithe Spirit doesn’t really need any help looking antiquated. Simon Higlett’s set is aesthetically pleasing, but it has that slightly threatening solidity that you only get in this kind of play. I’m no fan of revolves, but there’s something about those three immovable walls that brings a claustrophobic shiver – ‘Welcome to the drawing room…’, they seem to say, ‘You’ll be here for HOURS!’
Really though, this is just an excuse to get Dame Angela back in the West End so she can get the applause she richly deserves for a remarkable career in the performing arts. It’s a three-month standing ovation, and a bit of perpendicular whooping is a great way to stretch your legs and blow off the cobwebs after this slightly snoozy séance.