WASHINGTON — She became a TV icon solving crimes in “Murder, She Wrote” (1984), an animated fixture as Mrs. Potts in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (1991) and a movie legend brainwashing a political assassin with a game of solitaire in “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962).
But did you know that Angela Lansbury launched her stage career right here at the National Theatre?
It was exactly 58 years ago, on March 16, 1957, that Lansbury made her pre-Broadway debut at National Theatre in “Hotel Paradiso.” Her co-star that night? Bert Lahr, aka the Cowardly Lion from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939).
Now, there’s “no place like home” for Lansbury, who returns to the National Theatre for Noël Coward’s comedy “Blithe Spirit,” playing a medium recruited by a British novelist (Charles Edwards) to help with his book on the afterlife. Things don’t go according to plan, as their seance conjures the ghost of his first wife (Melissa Woodbridge), who clashes with his second wife (Charlotte Parry).
“She tries to handle it very decently, in a very British manner, polite and friendly and all the rest, but it doesn’t last for very long,” Parry tells WTOP, laughing. “She hates her, basically.”
For Edwards, it was a return to a role he played on stage long ago at age 24 — and one played on screen by the great Rex Harrison (“My Fair Lady”) in David Lean’s 1945 film version.
“When we were rehearsing it,” Edwards says, “the director Michael Blakemore told us, ‘Forget about the ghost stuff. Imagine that your ex and your current are living with you, and how would that be?'”
This is precisely how the two wives appear on stage — interacting in the same physical space. Edwards is the only one who can see his first wife, but Parry can’t see her at all, making for a number of hilarious situations, including a record player repeatedly playing Irving Berlin’s “Always.”
“We’re very used now to seeing ghosts and stuff on screen, whereas in the theater, to try and do that effectively is a theatrical challenge, and it’s exciting,” Edwards says. “We have furniture moving … books flying out of the bookcases and things like that. It’s fun to see that in the theater.”
While Edwards and Parry are commendably hilarious, the show belongs to the 89-year-old Lansbury, who delivers her first line offstage, prompting audience members to lean on the edge of their seats.
At Wednesday’s showing, the packed house erupted in applause when she finally took the stage — the kind of applause usually reserved for curtain calls after the show.
This is Lansbury like you’ve never seen her before — going into clairvoyant trances, doing Egyptian-style dances across the stage and experiencing rushes of supernatural pleasure. It’s a riot.
“Of course she is extraordinary on stage … but she’s so humble and charming and lovely and generous offstage, too. That sort of really struck me,” Parry says. “I didn’t know what she’d be like as a person, but just charming. She’s very silly. She’s very naughty.”
Parry first remembers her childhood watching Lansbury in “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971).
For Edwards, it was the Agatha Christie adaptation “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980), co-starring with Tony Curtis, Kim Novak, Elizabeth Taylor, Geraldine Chaplin and Rock Hudson.
Both “Blithe Spirit” leads say that working with Lansbury was invaluable.
“I feel like I’ve learned an awful lot, her comic timing,” Parry says. “I’ve learned so much, from, like, how she comes in quickly and when leaves a pause and where she looks — just really tiny little details that make it phenomenal and very clever. And what she does with her voice, bringing it up and bringing it down low. That’s fantastic.”
For Edwards, it was a different sort of discipline.
“When you’re playing a comedic role, it’s easy to hang your performance on the rhythm of the evening, where you expect your laughs to come, and sometimes they obviously don’t come,” Edwards says. “Every night, she plays the role anew, without any sort of assumption that there will be a reaction, which is, for a comedic performance, I think, a useful lesson — not to get too downhearted if the reaction that you want doesn’t come back.”
Don’t worry, Edwards. Judging from Wednesday’s audience, you have nothing to worry about.
“Blithe Spirit” is a riot.
Hear the full interview below: