Michael Blackmore, the 85 year-old director, is younger than his leading lady. At eighty-eight, Angela Lansbury delivers an astonishingly energetic, lively, and wildly entertaining performance as the eccentric medium and clairvoyant Madame Arcati in this delightfully blithe and spirited production of Noel Coward’s seminal 1941 play.
Charles Edwards is superb as Charles Condomine, the socialite and novelist, who invites Madame Arcati, to his house to conduct a séance, hoping to gather material for his next book. He gets more than he bargained for – his late wife, Elvira, returns from ‘the other side’ looking seductive and is affectionate, scheming to win him back. He basks in her attention regardless of the impact his behaviour has on his wife of five years, Ruth. His current wife Ruth, unlike Elvira, is sophisticated and sharp. Although she cannot communicate or hear Elvira, she can read her scheming mind better than her self-centred husband.
The breakdown in communication between Charles and his wife Ruth due to the presence of the ex-wife provides Coward an ideal platform for his witty and well-crafted farce.
Elvira’s presence unmasks the romantic Charles for he is, as Elvira reminds him that he is “so irascible, like you always used to be”, and that he was “an absolute pig” who once hit her with a billiard cue. Charles attempts to placate Elvira with all the heartfelt clichéd assurances he can muster, professing to “always love the memory” of her. He appears to enjoy the attention of his two demanding wives, until he realises that Elvira’s intention to sweep him off his feet involves whisking him away to the world beyond.
Edwards’s Charles is an amiable selfish male with a rather romantic view of himself. He clearly likes the two women fighting for him, but that comes to an end when Elvira’s true intention becomes clearer.
Despite the humour and the brilliance in this production and Edwards’s performance, there is a sense of paper-thin depth in Charles’s feelings towards either wife. The women in his life can be tolerated as long as they serve a purpose in which he can indulge in and benefit from. It is Coward in 1941 declaring without disclosing himself, that he cannot endure a woman‘s company for longer than necessary.
Janie Dee’s Ruth is a strong and intelligent middle class woman whose ability to manage her husband is seriously challengedby the return of his first wife, Elvira. Jemima Roofer’s ghostly Elvira is seductive. She is a strong cocktail of sexuality, bitchiness, and mischief served with a fatal punch. Patsy Ferran’s Edith, as the terrified maid, is pitch perfect.
Simon Higlett’s stage design provides a beautifully tailored domestic setting complete with billowing curtains that disconcertingly allude to the gateway to the other side.
Blakemore’s direction finely balances the flippant and dark humour of Coward’s script: the dramatic tension between affection and manipulation, love and heartlessness is sustained throughout the performance.
The announcing on a screen, in a Deco style, of the forthcoming act/scene together with delightful renditions of some of Coward’s songs add a delicious touch to the incredible story conveyed by sharp and witty dialogue in a very credible production. This is an evening to enjoy and ponder over.