It is Angela Lansbury’s hour and ovation, back on the West End stage at 88 after forty years away.  We’d be on our feet out of mere sentiment even if she was just OK:  as it happens she gives a performance of shimmering, seemingly effortless balance, brilliance and comic timing.    Her Madame Arcati won her a Tony on Broadway in 2009 and has clearly not lost impetus.  Probably gained a bit, since you need a proper British heart to understand that a tricky exorcism is best approached by swinging a string of garlic round your head and chirping  “Let’s put our shoulders into it this time, and give it a real rouser!” .

Her strength is that of the finest comic actors who – like all this cast –  understand that you must believe in the utter rationality of your chararacter, as the centre of her own universe and unaware of any absurdity.  The village medium Arcati is too often played as a dotty old bat, obsessed with psychical nonsense, by people with no real idea of what being one would feel like. Lansbury, far from dotty, nonetheless puts herself firmly inside the character:  every offended glare, nod, caper and professional exultation 100% credible and all the funnier for it.   To see her sand-dancing round the room in velvet droopwear covered in cabbalistic gold scrolls and sneakily pausing to adjust her henna hairdo is, on its own well worth the ticket price.

As for Noel Coward’s play, written in 1941 when our heroine was already at drama school,  it wears every bit as well as she does.  Like Private Lives and Design for Living it is brittle on the surface, molten beneath with dangerous emotional truths.  It may seem tiresome to find gay-conflict themes in Coward but it is hard to avoid:   there’s too often a man torn between a passionate, squabbling, morally doomed but irresistible affair and the deep, deep, boring peace of a conventional,  permitted, but sexually dull marriage.  Too open a code to ignore.  Even the secondary characters, the  visiting Bradmans, in a fleeting scene  illustrate the dulling tendency of sensible wives to shut up their husbands and hustle them briskly off.   Here, Charles Edwards’ Condomine,  alternately  fascinated and panicked by the accidental ghostly materialization of his foxy first wife Elvira,   allows glimpses of why married Ruth (Janie Dee).  He needed a Mum.   Dee herself ,  quelling her own innate foxiness,  demonstrates her fitness for the role by even folding a tablecloth with a certain menacing precision.  And when her fury at his flirting with Elvira’s ghost turns into solicitude, she’s Matron all the way.

Elvira is Jemima Rooper,  swishing around in white ghostly eveningwear and a smooth sharp pale bob,  and inhabiting the character’s amoral guttersnipe mischief without any of the irritating little-me cooing which can mar the role.  Costume has nicely distinguished the two women: Janie Dee’s natural foxiness is quelled by an unforgiving Princess Elizabeth perm, her bosom trussed up forbiddingly  in mauve crossover evening dress sans cleavage (even reappearing whitely as a ghost she’s not filmy and drapey like Elvira but in a buttoned-up Burberry and royal headscarf).  Patsy Ferran, getting a dream of a professional debut,  gives the part of Edith the clumsy maid all the mojo it requires;  and Michael Blakemore’s direction – with Coward’s  scene directions projected and the Master’s portrait shone at the end,   gives an old-fashioned air of hommage to the production in the best possible way.

But a last word about Charles Edwards:  always subtler, funnier, more human than you expect,  whether as Andrew Aguecheek, Edward VII or a Tory Chief Whip .  His Condomine is all he should be: smooth but easily put-upon, posturing, petulant, worriedly uncertain of his own feelings (terrified he might really have called up Elvira out of his ‘subconscious’),  easily panicked. A man adrift, a worm fit for the turning.   As he escapes the set’s final satisfying collapse, one wishes him well, poor sap…

box office     0844 482 5130  to  7 June

rating:  five  4 Meece Rating  BUT  the fifth is the first theatrecat award of Costume Design Mouse, to Bill Butler  and Martin Pakledinaz. – Costume design mouse resized


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