Noël Coward’s 1941 comedy teaches us that return to a former stamping ground can be a bad idea. It certainly produces trouble for Charles Condomine’s dead wife Elvira, when she pops back from beyond the grave to cause mischief in his second marriage. So you might advise 88-year-old actor Angela Lansbury against a comeback to the London stage after 40 years away. But she flies in the face of caution. Her performance as the medium Madame Arcati (conduit to Elvira’s return) is an absolute joy, beautifully pitched on the border between eccentric and earnest.
She’s crisp, precise and drolly unpredictable. Going into her trance to entice the spirit world she performs an odd, birdlike routine that really ought to go viral, Gangnam-style; informed by Charles that Elvira’s ghost is in the room, she prowls about, nose twitching, like a sniffer dog presented with suspicious luggage. But while all this is very funny, it’s not over the top. She treats doubters to a baleful stare that could freeze flames and both she and Michael Blakemore’s production make clear that, though batty, Madame Arcati is the most sincere character on the stage.
For this is a bitter comedy – not because it concerns death, but because it portrays a group of characters with barely a redeeming feature between them and delivers a bleak assessment of love. As so often with Coward, the flippancy conceals dark emotions and murky psychological hinterland. Smug writer Charles invites Madame Arcati over as amusing research for his next novel. But when she conjures Elvira, the ghost’s presence only makes manifest what has been in the room all along, with words like “guilt” and “jealous” peppering the conversation.
The bizarre love triangle that ensues, with Jemima Rooper’s minxy Elvira manipulating Charles against Ruth, his rational second wife (Janie Dee, increasingly pinched and funny), could be read as misogynistic, since both women finally appear intolerable. But Charles comes over as heartless and emotionally lazy and one suspects Coward was examining (as in Private Lives) the tensions between passion and commitment.
It’s a play that, though deftly constructed, grows tiresome occasionally and it offers very little real emotional nourishment. It needs playing to the hilt to succeed and Blakemore’s fine ensemble obliges, led not only by Lansbury but also by the excellent Charles Edwards, who offers a brilliantly detailed comic turn as Charles, dry as one of his own martinis, wickedly blithe as he finally makes his escape, pockets stuffed with brandy and cigarettes.