Gateway to Noël Coward - UK Edition

Angela Lansbury winds her first Olivier Award,
Best Supporting Actress in Blithe Spirit

Legendary stage and screen actress Angela Lansbury has won her first ever Olivier Award at this year’s ceremony for her show stealing performance in Blithe Spirit.

The revival of Noël Coward’s classic comedy saw the much-loved London-born Hollywood star revive her Tony Award-winning role as the delightfully dotty Madame Arcati in Michael Blakemore’s acclaimed production.

Opening in March 2014, Lansbury’s appearance made a stir both on and off stage, with critics lauding her youthful, witty performance as “sparkling” (The Telegraph) and “delicious” (The Independent), while fans queued nightly for a chance to meet the theatrical titan as she made her long-awaited return to the London stage in more than four decades.

While Lansbury made a high profile appearance at the Olivier Awards with MasterCard in 2011, presenting her frequent collaborator Stephen Sondheim with a Special Award, this is the first Olivier Award win for the actress who has worked more frequently on Broadway.

This win adds to the Murder She Wrote stars incredible line-up of accolades that includes five Tony Awards, six Golden Globe Awards and an Honorary Oscar.

Lansbury triumphs tonight over A View From The Bridge’s Phoebe Fox, the four young performers who starred in The Nether as Iris and King Charles III’s Lydia Wilson.

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Angela Lansbury’s road, from ‘Murder, She Wrote’ to Noël Coward


Angela Lansbury, 89, is the main attraction in “Blithe Spirit,” coming to the National Theatre this week. (Tobin Grimshaw/for The Washington Post) By Geoff Edgers.

They begin to cheer as soon as Angela Lansbury emerges, early in Act 1, with a curly, red wig and accent thicker than an overdone Sunday roast. Each night, the applause serves as a reminder that this moment is special.

“It’s a feeling of real pride to be up there with her and feel the extraordinary warmth that comes across from the audience,” says Charles Edwards, formerly of “Downton Abbey” and now playing writer Charles Condomine in the touring revival of Noël Coward’s supernatural comedy, “Blithe Spirit.”

Statistical realities may suggest that it is simply unheard of for an 89-year-old woman to be at the top of her game in a live, theatrical production, but Lansbury isn’t interested in proving a point by simply stepping onstage. Each night, she plays the quirky and eccentric medium Madame Arcati with the energy of a desperate understudy. She dances, flops over a chair and slams home Coward’s zingers with the precision of an atomic clock, the panache of a seasoned comic.

And “Blithe Spirit,” which arrives Tuesday at the National Theatre, is nothing short of a smash, a play touring to packed houses in an era when plays rarely tour, especially not English plays written during World War II. Though Lansbury isn’t onstage as long as Edwards and the other “Blithe” leads, Charlotte Parry and Melissa Woodbridge, everyone involved acknowledges that she’s the reason for that success. Her face is on the advertising flags installed on streetlights in Toronto and on the posters outside the Princess of Wales Theatre. Lansbury is the first to bring up her 12 years as the sleuthing scribe Jessica Fletcher on television’s “Murder, She Wrote."

“I know that I’m the hook to get the people in the theater,” says Lansbury. “In most instances, 80 percent of the audiences are coming to see Jessica Fletcher. The fact that I’m going to give them Madame Arcati is a surprise, but they love it. Thank goodness.”

The role is, Lansbury says, one of her favorites, no small thing for a woman who has taken on more than a hundred, starting with her Oscar-nominated film debut in 1944’s “Gaslight,” continuing on to Broadway and five Tony Awards, and then her most popular spin, as Fletcher in the TV series that ran from 1984 to 1996. How long has she been performing? Of the 50,000 registered members of the Actors’ Equity union, Lansbury is the second oldest.

“I adore to play really great, well-written comedy,” Lansbury says during an interview in Toronto, where “Blithe Spirit” has been playing before wrapping its four-city tour in Washington. “And Arcati is terribly funny but absolutely the most earnest, well-meaning woman you could possibly imagine. You can’t help but laugh at her and laugh with her. Nothing she does is for the sake of the joke. This is the woman and the character.”

Lansbury, on this day, is wearing a pink blouse, pearls and gold flats. She’s full of energy, good humor and strong opinions. She’s not afraid to share her relief that executives abandoned an attempted reboot of “Murder” set to star “The Help” actress Octavia Spencer. But she is cagey when asked to compare the people she plays onstage with her real self. Lansbury also does not call herself a star, describing herself as the ultimate character actress. She takes great pride in her range.
“I’ll put on a false ass, false anything, to change myself to become somebody else,” Lansbury says. “I’m never going to be me.”

The me side of Lansbury’s life has been well-documented. Born in London. An Oscar nomination while still in her teens. Then, more than a decade of secondary roles in a Hollywood system that didn’t properly cast her.

Lansbury’s film breakthrough came as the villainous mum in the 1962 political thriller, “The Manchurian Candidate,” earning her a third Academy Award nomination. (She would finally receive an honorary Oscar in 2013.) Her career then took off onstage, as Lansbury scored a Tony in the title role of 1966’s Broadway premiere of “Mame.” A series of stage and screen roles followed until she landed in the fictional Cabot Cove, the coastal Maine setting for “Murder, She Wrote.” Though Lansbury says that film and television roles no longer come her way, she’s continued to thrive in the theater.

It was back in 2009 that Lansbury won her fifth Tony for a revival of “Blithe Spirit” on Broadway. The current production, which premiered in London’s West End in 2014, is also directed by Michael Blakemore but has been reshaped. The set is different, as is most of the cast. Lansbury declines to explain why she feels this version if better. She doesn’t want to say anything that reflects poorly on the previous production. Blakemore is only slightly more open, describing this “Blithe Spirit” as more British.

“It was successful on Broadway and had a decent run and made money but I never felt it was quite right,” he said. “We have an English cast in this version, and the English bring to a Noël Coward play what an American cast would bring to ‘Death of a Salesman.’ One can’t imagine ‘Downton Abbey’ being played as persuasively by an American cast.”

One thing Blakemore says hasn’t changed is Lansbury.

“It’s beautiful acting,” Blakemore says. “She is the definitive Madame Arcati.”

But what about her age? Blakemore, himself 86, says that he hasn’t made any allowances. And Edwards has seen no sign of Lansbury slowing down.

“In L.A., they had us doing these five-show weekends,” Edwards says. “Which we were all bowled over by. But you bite your tongue if you say how tired you are, because Angela simply doesn’t do it.”

If Lansbury does make one concession to age, it is to wear an ear piece.

“I have a man on the end of the line,” she says, motioning to her left ear. “Tom here and Tim in London. If I suddenly lose it — this happens with all actors at one time in their lives, and certainly in my age bracket, it happens — he will throw me the word which will allow me to continue almost unbroken. It’s often just a word.”

Otherwise, she thinks nothing of age.

When told that she is the second-oldest registered member in Actors’ Equity, she asks who is older. Chicago actor Mike Nussbaum, 91.

“Tell him to watch out,” she smiles. “I’m coming on behind him.”

This is, she concedes, her last tour. Los Angeles, the first stop on the road, was a treat, a chance to perform live for the first time for family and friends in her adopted home town. But the schedule can be grueling. In Toronto, frigid temperatures have left her “trapped” in her hotel room.

And she has nothing left to prove. “Blithe Spirit” is just the latest reminder that Lansbury remains that rare combination of critically acclaimed and marketable. She just learned that she has been nominated for an Olivier Award for her London run. It would be her first.

In Toronto, crowds have been streaming into the Princess of Wales Theatre.
They applaud Lansbury’s entrance, roar with laughter as she performs the jagged, loping dance meant to summon the spirits during a seance. They cheer the cast, particularly Edwards, but stand only when Lansbury appears for her curtain call.

“She doesn’t look like she’s 89,” says Paige Morgan, a 37-year-old English instructor and doctoral student who remembers religiously watching “Murder, She Wrote” as a girl. “I wasn’t sure she was going to pull off Madame Arcati’s dance, but she killed it.”

Blithe Spirit March 17-29, National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.
202-628-6161. $48-$203.

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Noël Coward on Sir Winston Churchill's funeral

"I was taken to see the lying-in-state of Winston Churchill infinitely impressive - those endless crowds moving slowly and silently by after waiting in the bitter weather for many hours. On Saturday morning Vivien, Jack, Bumble (Beatrice Dawson), Billy Chappell, Graham, Coley and I watched the funeral on television from 9.20 to 1.30 in floods of proud tears for most of the time. No other race could have done so great a tribute with so little pomposity and so much dignity. The arrival of the barge we could see from the window of my sitting room (on the Savoy Hotel's Embankment side) directly opposite us. A great and truly noble experience."

Noël Coward Diaries

Angela Lansbury ‘Blithe Spirit’ Tour

Angela Lansbury continues her Tony-winning, West End-haunting run as the spirited rare medium Madame Arcati in Noël Coward's Blithe SpiritThe star of all screens and stages is on the road for a North American tour. Lansbury, who turned 89 on October 16, has brought the Michael Blakemore production to San Francisco, Toronto and Washington, where the tour will end with a run at the National Theatre from March 17-29. Read more...

Reviews: San FranciscoMercury News

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The Noël Coward Room

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Private Lives exclusively available to watch online with Digital Theatre

Digital Theatre has today released the acclaimed Chichester Festival production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives (Nominee, Best Revival - Olivier Awards 2014), directed by Jonathan Kent and starring Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor .

More info. and to rent or buy Private Lives visit...

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Loomis Dean’s 1955 portrait of the inimitable composer, actor, singer and playwright Noël Coward, dressed in a tux, standing in the broiling Nevada sun and looking for all the world like a man waiting for someone to bring him a cocktail at a dinner party. As Dean explained in a 1993 interview with John Loengard, published in Loengard’s book, LIFE Photographers: What They Saw, the picture came about like this... Read more... 


The Noël Coward Room

The Noël Coward Room is available by appointment. The room contains research material on Coward and his work, and is the starting point in London for anyone wanting to find out more about his life. If you wish to register your interest please email .When in London enter the World of Noël Coward at The Noël Coward Room•View the gallery of images of the room at its Tea Party opening in May 2014.

The casts of Blithe Spirit and Relative Values honoured the room at its opening with an afternoon tea party and a chance to hear from the Noël Coward Foundation Chairman, Alan Brodie about this wonderful new resource.

View the Room and details on access at the Opening Event Gallery...

Curated by Brad Rosenstein who curated the Noël Coward 'Star Quality' Exhibitions in San Francisco, LA and New York.
Dame Angela Lansbury at the opening.
In Noël's famed Hamlet chair.