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theatre review

At age 89, Angela Lansbury, left, gives an energetic and accomplished comic turn as Madame Arcati that might very well have made her into a star if she weren’t one already, while Susan Louise O’Connor almost steals the show as the slow-witted servant, Edith.Robert J. Saferstein

Angela Lansbury as the medium Madame Arcati is getting ready to connect with the spirit world.

She puts an Irving Berlin record on the gramophone – and then begins to trip the light ectoplasmic. She's wearing a sparkling, sequin-covered flapper outfit, but her supernatural shimmy starts like a tango – and then seems to segue into Walk Like an Egyptian. In between movements smooth and sudden, her eyes wide and searching for the unseen, she, bizarrely, blows kisses to the immaterial girls all around her and takes little bows.

If this Madame Arcati is a fake psychic, she has an originally odd routine – and the upper-class socialites who have hired her for a seance in Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit are baffled and don't know what to make of her. The audience at the Princess of Wales are equally stunned by Lansbury's physical performance in this moment – and burst into laughter of surprise and delight.

When stage legends tour in their later years, the experience can be like a seance – an attempt to commune with a spirit from the past. That's not the case here: Lansbury, at age 89, gives an energetic and accomplished comic turn as Madame Arcati that might very well have made her into a star if she weren't one already.

A trip to her Blithe Spirit is about making a new theatre memory, rather than revisiting old ones. You see what has made Lansbury such a beloved Broadway performer for more than half a century, picking up Tony Awards for Mame (1966), Dear World (1969), Gypsy (1975), Sweeney Todd (1979) and, most recently, but perhaps not lastly given the stamina she still shows, Blithe Spirit (2009).

Of course, everyone is going to see Lansbury – Blithe Spirit is not a comedy that has exactly been languishing in obscurity, having had nearby outings at both Soulpepper and the Stratford Festival in recent years.

This 1941 Coward comedy cheered up London after the Blitz, but its dark sense of humour retains a whiff of the war. Charles Condomine (Charles Edwards), a gentleman writer, convenes a seance with his second wife, Ruth (Charlotte Parry), as research for his next murder mystery. He wants to observe Madame Arcati's flim-flammery up close – but gets more material than he bargained for when the ghost of his first wife, Elvira (a vibrant Jemima Rooper), is accidentally summoned up and spooks havoc upon the household.

Director Michael Blakemore's production is masterful in its conjuring of classic Coward style – dry as the martinis Charles mixes – but does not exactly usher the play into a new century. His only flourish is to project the acts and stage directions onto the curtain between scenes as if they were silent-film inter-titles – a choice that makes the play seem staler than it actually is.

Those stage directions, by the way, are Coward's – "There is a wood fire burning because it is an English summer evening" is a delicious one – but the act divisions are Blakemore's. He's rejigged the play to have one interval, probably for practical reasons – but it flows better and feels less long with its original two as Brian Bedford's recent production at Stratford showed.

Coward's play is rather nasty, particularly about women – can't live with them, can't escape them even after they die – and the bickering between Charles and his wives can seem a little too true to be funny. The actresses in Blakemore's production are particularly strong, however: Susan Louise O'Connor almost steals the show as the slow-witted servant, Edith; her portrayal features a brilliant bit of physical comedy, as she turns cleaning the breakfast table into a circus act. (I missed the implication that Edith had actually been bullied into her nervous state by her bosses that was in Bedford's production.)

Designer Simon Higlett's set pulls off the poltergeist effects as needed at the end; his costuming is a little dull – Elvira seems to be wearing the curtains in the room. Lansbury's shimmering outfits were apparently designed separately, by Martin Pakledinaz. They shine, as she does.

Blithe Spirit continues to March 15. Visit mirvish.com for more information.