Blithe Spirit, written over the course of five days, boldly addresses death and afterlife at a time when Britain was desperate for closure and reassurance in the midst of World War II. Coward explored the nature of long term relationships whilst injecting much needed humour; comforting audiences with the notion that the dead live on, play delightful games of backgammon and sign up for return visits to Earth to haunt their loved ones. Blithe Spiritpremiered in London in 1941; intrigued audiences braved bomb craters and wreckage to catch a glimpse of Coward’s ghostly light comedy. Over 70 years later, the show has returned to the West End and continues to delight audiences with its tale of love, life, death and deception.
One name dominates the Gielgud Theatre. One name is consistently mentioned in all reviews and advertisements. One name is on everyone’s lips as the lights dim and the show begins. That name is, of course, Angela Lansbury and what can be said of her performance that has not already been said? She bopped, she jerked, she pranced. She regarded Serena Evans’ Mrs Bradman with a dry disinterest and warmly embraced her character’s spiritualism with such enthusiasm that forces me to echo the many critics who have stated that Lansbury embodied Madame Arcati in every way, essentially becoming her character and gathering nightly standing ovations for her performance. But taking a step back and viewing the larger picture, it seems incredibly unfair that – to some extent – Blithe Spirit has become an attraction due to the 88 year old woman who is playing the supporting role.
Today very few people can rightfully claim that they saw the original London production ofBlithe Spirit but reference to the original script and to the 1945 film closely based on the play, it is clear that the current West End production can draw many close comparisons. From the pale doors that stretch along the back of the set to Lansbury’s shadow eerily dwarfing the rest of the cast during the seance, Michael Blakemore’s production often alludes to the play’s roots. Characterisations firmly echo those in the original script with unquiet ghosts throwing themselves from the arm of a chair in over dramatic flourishes, reminding audiences that Coward’s play was intended to be nothing more than an “improbable farce.” Charles Edwards is outstanding as Charles Condomine, comfortable in his second marriage until Jemima Rooper’s ghostly Elvira hurls herself out of the curtains and monotonously lets her negligee slip from its place in order to remind Charles of the highs of his first marriage. Janie Dee’s embattled Ruth must struggle against the ghostly apparition of Elvira, her calm poise dissolving into despairing sobs as she contemplates the severity of her situation.
With Lansbury, Edwards and Dee all capable of making the entire house roar with laughter at the mere raise of an eyebrow or turn of the head, audiences are in for a supernatural treat at the Gielgud Theatre.