Before Blithe Spirit was confirmed as the smash hit of the West End spring, we caught up with leading ladies Janie Dee and Jemima Rooper. Despite trying to discuss other topics, one cast member dominated the conversation, Dame Angela Lansbury.
Most producers would be more than happy with a cast that boasted Olivier winner Janie Dee, Atlantis and One Man, Two Guvnors star Rooper and Downton’s Charles Edwards. Most theatregoers would be pretty pleased too. But adding an actress who can truly be called an icon of the stage and screens both big and small sent expectation levels for Blithe Spirit soaring.
According to recent reports, the Noël Coward play about a mad medium, a writer and his wives both alive and deceased is one of 2014’s most successful productions.
But what has it been like to be part of a play that has drawn levels of hype normally reserved for big budget musicals and where barriers are needed to keep the crowds from stage door each night?
Why did you want to be part of this production?
Dee: Angela Lansbury… and Noël Coward… and Michael Blakemore. But, Angela Lansbury; we’re all fans too. She’s so humble and giving. I went over to her last night and said sorry about a line. She said “Don’t apologise!” Why did you do it?
Rooper: Basically it needed to be a really good play that was going to get me back in the theatre because One Man, Two Guvnors was the last thing I did. That was going to be this tiny thing that was going to be a few months at the National. It then became this global thing and I ended up in New York. You know nothing’s going to compare. My next show either had to be stripping right back and doing something in a pub theatre or something political, just something completely different.
Blithe Spirit, of all plays in the universe, is the play that I’ve seen the most throughout my life. I think I have some relation who was Noël Coward’s set designer. He’s always been mentioned. The spirit of Coward’s work feels like it’s somewhere inside. It’s such a brilliant play. It was written at a very specific time and very few things, unless they are brilliant, survive. When it’s still in recent history, lots of things get very dated. This doesn’t.
Dee: It’s all about men and women and relationships.
Rooper: The language… And Lansbury and Blakemore. Two legends.
Dee: I was worried because I didn’t audition, I was just asked. It’s very flattering, but then you think “What if someone’s told [Blakemore] ‘Oh, she’s really good’ and he goes ‘She’s not!'”
At first he suggested that we did what he’d done in America. But he said very clearly “If you’re not happy with it, change it, I don’t mind.” There were a couple of times that I baulked, even at the beginning of it. I have to say now, he was right every time. Good directors, I guess they just have to be patient, but they do know.
How have you found the hype surrounding Angela Lansbury?
Rooper: I think we were all readying ourselves for that. There are nights when the audience are there for her, but they equally make us feel “You guys are alright too.” It feels lovely and it feels right. We are only here in this play, the job only exists, because of her.
Dee: Because of Angela and this momentous occasion where 40 years have elapsed and she’s able to come back, and because of the love of the play you just want it to be brilliant, you just do. There aren’t any egos. It was a really very happy rehearsal period. You treasure it when it’s like this because it’s so much easier to get the work done and let go. If there’s any fear or tension you can’t try anything, you can’t have a go at pushing the barriers. You need it to be like a happy playground.
The first night was the most terrifying first preview ever. I wanted to leave the stage. In fact, I left the stage at one point and I said to Angela, “Angela we’ve got to go back on.” She said “I don’t want to go back on.” I said “Neither do I but we’ve got the scene.” So we walked back on and sat down and the curtain went up and then it started to get better. There’s something about knowing she was as scared in that moment. It was very supportive of her to be so open. It was terrifying because the expectation is so high. People expect something amazing.
Rooper: She doesn’t behave like she could. She’s just another actor. She’s just professional with a sense of humour.
Dee: You never get a cold shoulder.
Does this production give you the opportunity to have a little bit too much fun on stage?
Dee: Yes… Jemima
Rooper: Do you know what’s really interesting, if it was another production or a different director, because I’m a ghost potentially I could just run around and pull my pants down…
Dee: …I want you to be that naughty…
Rooper: … I wanted to do one show where I was given free rein, but I know it would be wrong. You don’t want to pull focus too many times. Having been on stage with a lot of pulling focus people, it can be really difficult. I’ve been guilty enough myself, but it throws everything off balance. When you’ve got someone like Angela being really professional. There isn’t a want or need to do it that way. But in a few weeks the final scene is going to be so difficult. We’re really naughty.
Dee: Angela sometimes stays in Madame Arcati whilst we’re working, so I’ve started to stay in Ruth. We start having conversations, winging it.
Rooper: I’m afraid I always was Elvira. When we were in rehearsals I was horrible at home. My partner is a writer, as is Charlie [Edward]’s character in this. He’d be sitting on his laptop concentrating and I’d buzz around him and really annoy him. Usually I’d just let him get on with it, but I started being naughty. It’s really fun.
Dee: He enjoyed it too?
Rooper: Less so… [laughs].