Angela Lansbury, the star of this show as the dippy and eccentric medium Madame Arcati, once starred in a very different vehicle as an occult-obsessed character. As Miss Price in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, she was the witch who tried to vanquish the Second World War with magic. As Arcati, in Blithe Spirit, first staged one month after the Blitz ended, she summons magic to turn what could be tragedies into laughter.
The play starts with a séance headed by Aracti who unwittingly conjures the dead wife of Charles, a man now semi-happily married with his second wife Ruth. Chaos ensues as wife number one, Elvira, refuses to budge and just starts enjoying her ghost powers, wafting objects spookily and smashing vases imitating the ghost genre. A twist in the tale leaves Charles free to enjoy a bachelor life, free of his two controlling wives forever.
Of course, Lansbury is bewitching and incredible, at 88 still able to toss back lines at rapid fire rate and her strange jerky, semi-graceful dance when she goes into her trances is hilarious. Charles Edwards is excellent as the complaining and henpecked, yet ultimately rather dopey husband. As Elivira blows little ghost kisses in his face and he reverts to being a giddy lover, it’s clear rather than confusing how he could ever have gone on to marry equally bossy and manipulative Ruth. Patsy Ferran, making her professional stage debut as maid Edith was a star despite her small part; one look at her jaunty stare was enough to bring the house down.
At the very end when the ceilings of Simon Higlett’s beautiful period set cave in, you might marvel at the different connotation for post-Blitz audiences in 1941. But for us today, after the powerful concoction of Coward’s wit, incredible performances all round and a magical Lansbury, this night was pure, unmitigated joy.