Wednesday, March 4, 2015


A few weeks back. I had, what is a rare experience for me: I saw two plays, in two different commercial theatres, back to back.

One play featured a star, and one play was about a long dead star.

On the Thursday night, I saw BLITHE SPIRIT at the Princess of Wales Theatre.  It's an excellent production, with a uniformly fine cast, and a star of stage, screen, and television: British actress, Angela Lansbury.

Lansbury is known and loved on this side of the pond, primarily for her years as the writer-detective, Jessica Fletcher in a long-in-syndication, '80s who-done-it, MURDER SHE WROTE.

Lansbury is no former television star taking a turn on the stage.  Her career on the boards spans six decades, and includes numerous starring roles on Broadway, and in the West End.  She has won five Tony awards, and was made a Dame of the British Empire for her distinguished career in the arts.

The theatre was packed, and deservedly so. The famous actress ( who received a spontaneous round of show-stopping applause upon entrance) is part of a superb British ensemble, who more than hold up their part of this internationally successful production.

Charles Edwards makes a note perfect Charles Condimine, the droll and put-upon novelist who organizes a seance as research for his next book, and gets more than he bargained for. Charlotte Parry is lovely as the sensible Ruth, his second wife.  She convincingly shows us a sane woman slowly being driven mad by her husband's increasing distractedness and by the exasperating presence of  a singularly unwelcome otherworldly house-guest who refuses to drink up and go home.

Jemina Rooper brings an impish charm to Elvira, Charles ghostly first wife, making her a kind of force of Nature.  Susan Louise O'Connor nearly steals the show as Edith, a delightfully disastrous klutz of a housemaid. With Simon Jones and Sandra Shipley as the seance/dinner guests, the Bradmans, the entire company works together like a well-oiled  machine.  They nail Coward's arch tone and quick wit, as well as the style and pacing required to make this drawing room comedy soar.

As to Lansbury, she vigorously embraces the eccentric character of Madame Arcanti, knocking back gin and  calling down the dead with a dance that is part funky chicken, part walk like an Egyptian, and entirely hilarious.At the same time, she retains the character's wisdom, and dignity, and works with the rest of the company like the top-notch team player she is.  You don't see that every time someone gets star billing.

Director Michael Blakemore has struck a successful balance between the madcap aspects of the play and its darker, more stinging notes of cynicism about relations between the sexes, and its uneasy (some might say sexist) view of female aggression.

Coward apparently didn't think much of the institution of marriage. By the end of the play, Charles is less a man, trapped in the impossible situation of trying to keep two wives happy at once, and more in the situation of a a man trying to escape the clutches of two of the Furies. If you've ever dated anyone with an all-too present ex, you'll feel his pain - and Ruth's.

BLITHE SPIRIT is an absolute treat. Hurry up and get a ticket!

The next evening,  I saw MARILYN, FOREVER BLONDE, a one-person production about the life and work of  film star, and pop culture icon, Marilyn Monroe, featuring a convincing and committed performance by Sunny Thompson. Unfortunately, the script about Monroe's life was nowhere nearly as good as the performer in it.

Sunny Thompson had the necessary  aura of vulnerability and charm to play Monroe. As a performer, she  has great warmth and vivacity and a lovely singing voice.  She effectively  recreates Monroe's vocal patterns, inflection, walk and mannerisms.  It was a good, well-directed  performance, mired in a pretty lame script..

The premise that is set up at the beginning of the play is a good one. Monroe is having a photo shoot at her house in her bedroom - except, this is a one person show.  Flashbulbs keep going off , but we never see or meet a photographer, or any of the parade of  Monroe's husbands and lovers Thompson discusses in the two act piece.  We hear from some  in voice-over, Joe DiMaggio, for instance, but inexplicably, not others, like Arthur Miller.

Most of the singing ( which was very good) was weirdly unaccompanied. The numbers that did have music were far more punchy than the ones that didn't.

The costumes were not really period, and did not really look like any of the dresses Monroe so famously wore.  

The end of the play alludes to Monroe's death in her own bed, of an overdose.  We see her drink quite a bit, but she never takes a pill.

The set looked good, and director, Stephanie Shine makes effective use of the various playing spaces, but it's not always clear from the script where we are. The film projections were a good idea, but it would have been nice to see more images of the people Monroe describes from her life as she spoke of them, and their impact on her.

Part night club tribute show, part memoir, the play is a little bit of everything one might want from a show about Marilyn Monroe, but not enough of anything to really form a satisfying whole.

If you're a hard-core Marilyn Monroe fan, this might appeal, but I found the production wanting, in spite of Thompson's quite lovely  performance. I hope on her next outing, someone writes her a better script, or casts her in AFTER THE FALL and gives her a fair chance to really shine.  She deserves it..

MARILYN, FOREVER BLONDE, by Nu Musical Productions was at the Winter Garden Theatre between February 13-16th. BLITHE SPIRIT continues until March 15th at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West, from Tuesday to Sunday, with matinee and evening performances. For tickets go to or call (416) 872 1212.

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