Angela Lansbury lights up definitive ‘Blithe Spirit’ 

click to enlarge From left, Sandra Shipley, Charles Edwards, Susan Louise O’Connor, Angela Lansbury, Charlotte Parry and Simon Jones appear in the delicious national tour of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” - COURTESY JOAN MARCUS
  • COURTESY JOAN MARCUS
  • From left, Sandra Shipley, Charles Edwards, Susan Louise O’Connor, Angela Lansbury, Charlotte Parry and Simon Jones appear in the delicious national tour of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.”
The big draw in this gorgeous-looking -- and, in fact, definitive -- touring production, from London and Broadway, of Noel Coward’s 1941 farcical comedy “Blithe Spirit” is the estimable Dame Angela. She seems born to play the role of the dotty medium Madame Arcati, who comes cycling up to the home of writer Charles Condomine (Charles Edwards, who played Lady Edith’s publisher lover in “Downton Abbey”) and his wife, Ruth (Charlotte Parry).

Invited by the couple to conduct a séance in their parlor, she arrives equipped with all the necessary paraphernalia and memorized mumbo-jumbo. The Condomines, a sophisticated pair, are confirmed non-believers, but Charles wants a demonstration of the process for a book he’s writing.

Things go hilariously haywire when a spirit does actually materialize: Charles’ mischievous and seductive first wife, Elvira (Jemima Rooper), whom apparently only Charles can see.

Elvira has plans of her own that are guaranteed to ruin the Condomines’ marriage in one way or another—and Madame Arcati has neglected to mention that once she’s raised a ghost from the Other Side, there’s very little hope of dematerialization.

Angela Lansbury, decked out in sparkles and sequins and textured fabrics (by Martin Pakledinaz), is indeed the most entrancing Madame Arcati you could hope to find. This is a Madame Arcati with a hard-edged crustiness—barking reprimands and orders one minute, going into ecstatic raptures and mysterious but intensely focused flights of otherworldliness _ her lean and angular body contorting like a pretzel _ the next. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen her conjure up a spell or whip herself into a trance, uttering strange cries, stalking across the stage in carefully choreographed with precisely executed, herky-jerky gestures that outshine Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.

Directed by Michael Blakemore (whose credits include directing Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre), this is a “Blithe Spirit” that not only features delicious visual tricks and surprises (elegant set by Simon Higlett) but that also presents an uncompromising and cynical picture of marital relations, perhaps even more intensely and dramatically than Coward himself imagined. That makes it fully satisfying on every level.

The topnotch cast of American and British actors includes Simon Jones (who has a wonderfully intrusive guffaw) and Sandra Shipley as a pair of guests, and, in a key role, Susan Louise O’Connor as a comically nervous maid.

REVIEW

Blithe Spirit

Presented by SHN

Where: Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesday and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, closes Feb. 1

Tickets: $45 to $175

Contact: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Bio:
Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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