Angela Lansbury's Last Performance
on the London Stage in 2014
“It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.”
I’m republishing this as a tribute to Angela Lansbury who died on the 11th October 2022 in Los Angeles.
After being away for four decades, Angela Lansbury graces the West End stage as Noel Coward’s eccentric spiritualist Madame Arcati. Lured to Charles (Charles Edwards) and Ruth’s (Janie Dee) house to provide Charles with material for the novel he is writing, the unsuspecting Madame Arcati succeeds in conjuring up the spirit of Charles’ feisty first wife Elvira (Jemima Rooper). As only Charles can hear and see Elvira, his conversation with her is readily misunderstood by others in the room who think he must be speaking to them. Noel Coward’s script is well conceived and stands the test of time.
The Master’s gentle comedy gets an absolutely tip top production here from Michael Blakemore with brilliant performances all round. It is Edith (Patsy Ferran) the scatty maid who provides much of the early comedy as she stands very, very close when taking instruction and races to answer the doorbell so that we glimpse her madcap dash in the hallway behind the sitting room set. Clearing the tea tray plates she is an accident waiting to happen in a fine comic cameo.
Madame Arcati’s entrance is warmly anticipated as they all talk about her before she arrives, of course when she does, she gets the applause due to the grandes dammes of the theatre. She has red earphone plaits, a strange cap and an embroidered costume with many hanging necklaces and the large carpet bag she has brought on her bicycle. Ruth and Charles and their guests, the Bradmans (Simon Jones and Serena Evans) sit at a table their finger tips touching for the séance. Madame Arcati collapses on the sofa going into a trance before contacting her spirit medium the awful child with a cold, Dorothy. Angela Lansbury dances her spirit dance with tremendous verve and manic hand movements. Her delivery shows great comic timing as she puts down those who are not taking her spiritualism as seriously as they might.
Simon Higlett’s set is an old farmhouse with white bleached beams and curtains that billow at the French windows when Elvira materialises. Jemima Rooper with her white blonde bob is a small, mischievous ghost and sexually competitive, not at all ethereal and determined to have Charles to herself. Ruth is very tight lipped as Charles says all the wrong things to her which he is really saying to Elvira. As Ruth, Janie Dee is joyful to watch and she milks every inch of comedy out of her role as the unamused, serious second wife annoyed by Charles’ description of Elvira as his more sexually attractive wife. Charles is obviously enjoying being the centre of attention and is really rather smug but cold hearted.
Coward’s script is stuffed full of witty epigrams and racy banter and hugely enjoyable. The twists in the script are sometimes predictable but others are not. The period songs between scenes can get annoying as the female singer has a piercing warbling delivery, not helped by the woman in the row behind joining in on the night I saw, and the silent movie style scene introduction jokes wear a little thin. But these are tiny niggles for what is a marvellous and special evening in the theatre seeing an octogenarian actor and director on top of their form.
Written by Noël Coward
Directed by Michael Blakemore
Director: Michael Blakemore
Designer: Simon Higlett
Lighting Designer: Mark Jonathan
Sound Designer: Ben and Max Ringham
Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Closed 7th June 2014
35 Shaftesbury Avenue
London W!D 4AR
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Gielgud Theatre
on 20th March 2014