Anyone familiar with Noël Coward should be familiar with his seminal play, “Blithe Spirit.” The self-proclaimed “improbable farce” is an exercise in wordplay and comedic theatrics, just like most of the playwright’s work. The musicality embedded in his dialogue is the stuff contemporary classics are made of. From "Monty Python" to “Will & Grace,” Coward’s work has always had an influence on pop culture.
So it may not be too farfetched to think of "Spirit" as "Three’s Company" blended with the supernatural elements and shenanigans of 1992’s cult hit Death Becomes Her.
The opening act finds writer Charles Condomine, played by Charles Edwards (otherwise known as “that guy who knocked up Lady Edith on 'Downton Abbey'”), inviting the eccentric Madame Arcati to his countryside home to conduct a séance – it’s all research for his latest book. Surrounded by his wife Ruth (a terrific Charlotte Parry) and their friends, Charles considers all the hand-holding and candlelit mutterings to be silly nonsense. But when he’s visited by the ghost of his first wife, the late Elvira (Jemima Rooper), things take a turn for the crazy – and slightly slapsticky.
Edwards is the perfect straight man, playing Charles with just enough stick up his ass that it's delightful to see his feathers (and coattails) get ruffled. Meanwhile, Rooper has one hell of a time playing the plucky Elvira. Decked out in a shimmery white nightgown and a platinum blond wig, she turns the living room – in which every scene takes place – into her playground. She revels in the mischief she creates. Then there’s Susan Louise O’Connor, reprising her role from the 2009 Broadway revival as Edith the mousy housemaid.
However, what the audience has been salivating for is the main course: Angela Lansbury. She plays Madame Arcati, the role that earned her a fifth Tony Award. At 89 years young, Lansbury is as hysterical and sharp as ever, commanding the stage with enough lunacy to elevate everyone in her company. Her Madame Arcati is a far cry from Jessica Fletcher, the mild-mannered sleuth she portrayed for 12 seasons on "Murder She Wrote." For those old enough to remember the 1978 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, you may see shades of Lansbury’s Mrs. Salome Otterbourne, the kooky alcoholic novelist who meets a grisly demise halfway through that murder mystery. When Arcati kicks off her jerky, tribal-like dance in an attempt to summon some spirits, the veteran actress runs with it and ends up summoning laughter throughout the theater.
Director Michael Blakemore keeps the “three-act” production chugging along, peppering it with some great visual cues; it’s amazing what a synchronized crossing of legs on a couch can add to a scene. And it certainly helps that all the players are given a gorgeous set in which to run around, thanks to Simon Higlett’s tasteful (and functional) designs.
‘Tis the season to get into this "Spirit."
For more of Hiko’s bloggage, visit TheFirstEcho.com and BelloMag.com, or tweet him @TheFirstEcho.