Last week I was at the BFI Southbank to see a recording of ‘Driving Miss Daisy’, filmed live in Australia and featuring Angela Lansbury, James Earl Jones and Boyd Gaines. I’d previously seen the same production on a London run with Vanessa Redgrave as Daisy, but it is curious and instructive to see what a change of just one cast member can do for the dynamics of a play, and so it was here. Redgrave may be a theatre grand dame and one of an illustrious dynasty, but Lansbury is A Star. Her scenes with Jones are an absolute joy.
The play was hugely enjoyable and Lansbury, making a rare personal appearance afterwards on the cinema stage, talked frankly about her time at MGM (which she clearly hated, finding the studio cold and impersonal in contrast with Paramount’s friendly vibe when she was loaned out for ‘The Court Jester’), how she felt when she triumphed on the Broadway stage in ‘Mame’ but lost the role in the film to Lucille Ball, and the twelve-year run on television of the popular crime series ‘Murder, She Wrote’ which gave employment to so many of her old colleagues. At 88 years old, Lansbury is still bright and glamorous, and even if she didn’t quite appreciate the level of film knowledge of her audience (‘you won’t have heard of Boston Blackie/Greta Garbo/Robert Taylor’), she appeared fairly warm even if she was dismissive of the talents of most of her contemporaries.
Today I was in the same ‘room’ as Ms Lansbury again, but this time at the Gielgud Theatre for the matinee performance of Noel Coward’s sparkling comedy, ‘Blithe Spirit’. With Charles Edwards, Janie Dee, and Jemima Rooper acting alongside Lansbury, this is a vibrant production with a wicked second half (the first takes a while to warm up), although I hesitate to agree that front stall and dress circle tickets are worth in excess of £100. Madame Arcati to many will always be Margaret Rutherford, but Angela Lansbury with her expressive glances, dotty dancing, and sense of timing, does entertain with a level of professionalism which comes from a seven decade career.