On paper, the line "Are they still there?" looks beyond ordinary. But in the context of Noel Coward’s evergreen comedy from 1941, "Blithe Spirit," it's should get a chuckle when delivered by Madame Arcati, the unexpectedly successful medium trying to help a man deal with the ghosts of two departed wives.
If you give the role of Madame Arcati to the ageless Angela Lansbury, however, those four little words can set off an honest-to-goodness, bring-down-the-house moment, which is what happens in the bubbly "Blithe Spirit" revival now at the National Theatre.
If you caught Lansbury in the 2009 Broadway revival, which earned her a Tony, you know what you are in for this time. The director, Michael Blakemore, is the same, and so are some of the supporting actors. The overall look hasn't changed. And Lansbury wears the costumes by Martin Pakledinaz she wore then (Simon Higlett designed the stylish clothes and set for this production).
But everything the 89-year-old actress does here has terrific freshness. This is no mere walk-through for old time’s sake.
With a perkily exotic hat atop curls and braids of fiery red hair, a Monty Python-worthy assortment of silly walks and gestures (part of her warm-up for a trance), and that wonderfully musical voice of hers (flute-y to bass-y), Lansbury lights up the stage at every turn.
So, by all means, take advantage of this opportunity to savor the remarkable talents of one of the most treasured stars of our day in one of her favorite roles. But this "Blithe Spirit" is also well worth catching for the chance to enjoy vivid acting all around, especially from former "Downton Abbey" cast member Charles Edwards (that's right, Lady Edith's baby daddy).
He plays Charles Condomine, who, for research on a book, invites the local medium to hold a seance. The last thing he expects is the materialization of his deceased wife, Elvira (a sleek and funny Melissa Woodbridge), especially with his current, very much alive wife, Ruth (a spot-on Charlotte Parry), in the house.
Edwards does impeccably timed work that recalls the lighter side of Cary Grant. And he gives Lansbury a run for her money in the department of prismatic facial expressions as things heat up between Wife No. 1 and Wife No. 2, who ends up Elvira's unintended victim.
There are vibrant efforts from the supporting players, especially Susan Louise O'Connor as a highly strung maid who reveals a unique method for removing a tray.
In addition to Blakemore's snappy pacing and Mark Jonathan's subtle lighting, the production boasts droll title cards that introduce each scene to the recorded strains of songs by Coward and Irving Berlin, sung in the sweetly fluttering voice of Christine Ebersole (she was Elvira in the 2009 Broadway revival).
No point in thinking too hard about the occasional creaks in Coward's comedy, or the ever so slightly misogynistic undercurrent. It remains a classic. And with Lansbury at the delicious center of this revival, "Blithe Spirit" conjures up enormous fun.
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