Noël, Noël or audiences behaving badly

Blithe Spirit may not be Noël Coward‘s best play, but neither is it his worst. But mishandled it can become a disaster waiting to happen.

The first thing wrong with the present production in London is without doubt: The Audience. The friend I was with, had someone texting or tweeting throughout the performance, my side I had people talking AND tweeting, in front they were constantly whispering to each other…and then everyone clapped enthusiastically when Dame Angela Lansbury came on and exited, although quite a few times it was both inappropriate and pointless.

I felt really sorry for the rest of the cast, especially the actress playing Mrs Condomine, Janie Dee – who out-acted, out-classed and outshone Dame AL as the sun does the stars.

Sadly, although it has had good reviews in the National Press, I profoundly disagree with them all. Dame Angela Lansbury is a really terrible Madam Arcati, a performance which is not helped by the fact that pretty much everyone from the press to the people sitting in “the Gods” have come to see her and not the play. Dame Angela herself has said that though she is more than willing to shed her close identification as Jessica Fletcher in “Murder, She Wrote” so far she is finding it hard to shift audience perception: and this demonstrates the error of using a TV personality to draw in the audience.

While not for one minute suggesting that this is the sum total of Dame Angela’s career, which is very distinguished both on stage and screen, her years as Jessica Fletcher have marked her out and it is this that people have come to see and it is this that they are applauding…not the performance.

Written in the 1940s, this play enjoyed its première in London in 1941. It went on to play nearly two thousand performances (creating a new long-running record) and was made into a film in 1945 starring Rex Harrison as Mr Condomine and Margaret Rutherford as Madam Arcati.

It is my opinion that there must be two ways to play Madam Arcati – either completely sincerely as a medium who honestly believes in her powers to channel those spirits that have passed over or as a charlatan; an actress cannot convincingly play it both ways.

Years ago I saw Beryl Reid playing it for real. Quite brilliant! The film version, directed by David Lean, went all out for the charlatan who surprises herself as much as anyone else when she raises Elvira, the late wife of Mr Condomine, much to the dismay of his present wife, Ruth.

Dame Angela Lansbury seems to be playing whimsical, mystical, quasi-Egyptiana…and the effect is an emptiness at the centre of the play which now cannot bear the weight of the drama (comedic and otherwise) to come.

Another bad decision, which appears to capitalise on the success enjoyed by the elderly waiter in One Man, Two Guv’ners, is the erratic and ridiculous behaviour of the maid, Edith.

A very disappointing night.

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