Come to see Angela Lansbury, stay for the strong ensemble.
Come to see Angela Lansbury, stay for the strong ensemble. Credit: Joan Marcus

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It’s a tale as old as time: Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back from the dead via séance. Blithe Spirit, Noël Coward’s oft-produced and -adapted ghost comedy, was first staged almost 75 years ago. At times it comes dangerously close to beating some of its well-worn ghostly tropes, well, to death. But the touring version currently running at the National Theatre manages to breathe new life into the play, largely due to the vivacious addition of Angela Lansbury to the cast.

Lansbury’s small but pivotal turn is in the role of Madame Arcati, a muddled, mystical medium who cavorts across the stage and delivers zingers that would put the Dowager Countess to shame. Arcati can summon long dead spirits and blustery “elementals,” but Lansbury’s true and astonishing power is her ability to bring the house down with just a few words and a knowing glance.

The circumstance that serves as an excuse to have Arcati chew the scenery on stage is an invitation from novelist Charles (Charles Edwards), who has invited the psychic and a few guests to his home to get some wacky color for his next book. His suspect motives are rewarded when he instead winds up with his ex-wife Elvira (Melissa Woodridge), summoned back from the dead with no intention of leaving the world of the living for a second time. Only Charles can see and hear the spirit, which leads to as many predictable “wacky” misunderstandings as you might expect. Most of these jokes—and there are a lot of them—run along the lines of Charles sharply disapproving of something Elvira is doing, which his perpetually put-upon wife Ruth (Charlotte Parry) takes to be an insult directed at her.

Still, the jokes not tied to the “I see dead people, but no one else does” bit generally find their mark. Witty, dry, and relentlessly posh British witticisms are delivered rapid-fire throughout the show; it’s the same addictive core that lies at the heart of Downton Abbey—and, yes, if you’re wondering whether you recognize Charles, it’s almost certainly from his turn as Michael Gregson on that very show.

Director Michael Blakemore has imbued this version of Blithe Spirit with remarkably vivid and hilarious moments of physical comedy, many revolving around the almost-mute but scene-stealing maid, Edith, who manages to turn an act as simple as clearing away breakfast dishes into a side-splittingly complex affair. Other tricks hiding in the play’s arsenal include a deceptively simple looking set (designed by Simon Higlett) that changes moods in an instant from sunny mid-morning to dramatic midnight séance, and conceals elements for a shockingly explosive finale.

Blithe Spirit marks Lansbury’s return to the National Theatre almost 58 years since making her pre-Broadway debut there. The show would already be a no-brainer to see if only to catch Lansbury’s show-stealing performance—but the sharp-tongued wit and ghoulish humor that preside over the entire night make the show unmissable.