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Looking for Lansbury at St James Theatre Studio

Looking for Lansbury
Looking for Lansbury
Photo by Dan Tsantalis

A unique experience and a brilliant conception, Looking For Lansbury goes through the career history and personal life of one of the most versatile performers in living memory. The most famous persona inhabited by Dame Angela Lansbury is, of course, Jessica Fletcher, the mystery writer and itinerant detective in Murder, She Wrote, but there’s so much more to Lansbury’s own story that Fiona-Jane Weston presents in her meticulously researched production. Even the show’s title alludes to Fletcher; the show sort of ‘investigates’ Lansbury, if you will.

A criticism sometimes given of musicals in general, as a form of theatre, is that songs do not always progress the narrative. Those who see song-and-dance routines again and again in the same show can therefore find themselves waiting patiently for a song to finish so the story can continue. There is a possibly unavoidable element of this here in this production, at least in the first half, which at times felt as though songs were being thrown in from Lansbury’s illustrious (if volatile) Broadway career to pad out the show. Still, Weston has an excellent rapport with the audience, and despite needing the occasional prompt from William Godfree, the beaming and likeable on-stage musical director (or was that scripted too?), she delivered this intelligently written show with confidence, maintaining an extremely canny impersonation of Lansbury throughout.

The show did not appear to be too gushing or overly biased in praise of Lansbury, but some unsympathetic directors perhaps unnecessarily came across as slightly villainous, or at least narrow-minded. I wonder whether Lansbury herself would be quite so dismissive of those who went for someone else for certain roles she auditioned for: personally, I should imagine she would be rather more stoic and philosophical.

Things are not necessarily in strict chronological order, which is fine – the order in which events are presented flow very well, with one or two songs from roles that Lansbury made her own on the Broadway and West End stages slotting in perfectly. There’s something quite special about hearing about Lansbury’s grown-up children dabbling in illicit drugs, and her bringing them both to Ireland for an extended break together, and then hearing ‘Not While I’m Around’ from Sweeney Todd, sung in a rather different context: “No one’s gonna hurt you, no one’s gonna dare / Others can desert you, not to worry, whistle, I’ll be there…

Indeed, the Lansbury canon runs through the whole gamut of musical theatre, from Stephen Sondheim to Jerry Herman and everything in between. Despite the sheer amount of shows across theatre, film and television that are discussed, Weston felt it necessary to apologise to the audience for any of their Lansbury favourites that may not have had a look in. The show could, apparently, have been even longer; amid cries for ‘more!’ from the audience at curtain call, Weston successfully goes out on a high. It’s always better to leave your audience wanting more than outstaying your welcome.

While Looking For Lansbury’s opening night had special poignancy, falling on the 90th birthday of Dame Angela Lansbury (there was cake for all after the show), the show is both highly enlightening and entertaining – and, for the most ardent Lansbury fans who know everything there is to know about this remarkable leading lady, it’s a very good and accurate production that provides a comprehensive whistle-stop tour. Or so say the said ardent Lansbury fans. Regardless of your current knowledge of the life and times of Dame Angela Lansbury, the mixture of music, narrative and role-play make for a worthwhile night out. I’ve certainly been brought up to speed on this great British sensation.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Looking For Lansbury
Coinciding with Dame Angela Lansbury’s 90th birthday, this celebratory investigation into the life and work of one of our best-loved actresses and musical performers looks beneath the glamorous façade. It’s a tale of struggle and perseverance, as the star of Mame and Murder She Wrote fights against the misconceptions and expectations of Hollywood and Broadway.

Discover how the much-loved star of stage and screen used her courage, talent and tenacity to become the household name and icon we know today. Drawing extensively on exclusive interviews and memoirs, and accompanied by live renditions of well-known classics from Mame, Dear World, Gypsy, and Sweeney Todd, along with freshly-revived jazz and country numbers, Fiona-Jane Weston brings this story to the stage for the very first time to explore how Dame Angela Lansbury captured a generation.

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