Minutes away from the boisterous sounds of honking traffic at Victoria Station, you find yourself transported in time and space, seated snugly in a dimly lit bar reminiscent of a speakeasy. The crowd is your arty type: statement glasses, tweed coats and knitted woollen jumpers. On the stage of St. James Theatre lay a piano, a leather suitcase and a coat-rack with a sole chequered jacket dangling off it. Of course – the audience ruminate – Jessica Fletcher is in the building.
Weston’s shows are not your run-of-the-mill theatre experiences. There are no fourth walls as Weston performs Lansbury’s encyclopaedic story in a documentary style of sorts, a relaxed conversation with a touch of humour that aims to unearth the enigma that is this Broadway icon. Indeed, little is known about the intensely private Angela Lansbury, yet Weston succeeds in making human this star via a plethora of political speeches, seemingly tangential anecdotes and mishaps, songs that shaped Angela’s career and the Dame’s very own words where possible.
Demonstrating an extraordinary skill for inhibiting the skin of her muse, Weston plays every facet of Angela’s kaleidoscopically changing character throughout the ages with real conviction, embodying her mannerisms, mischievous voice and all. In an energetic opening, in floats Angela Lansbury herself, or rather the spectacular Weston, dressed as rosy red as her opening song, Coming up Roses – a nod to Lansbury’s role as Momma Rose in the recently revisited musical smash-hit, Gypsy. Channelling Lansbury’s iconic detective role, Weston goes on to explain that, through a series of clues stashed in her suitcase and musical accompaniments by talented pianist William Godfree, the audience will come to know the woman behind the Hollywood star.
As a child Angela was determined to turn away from her famous actress mother, Moyna Macgill’s footsteps. Yet an inescapable passion for the arts and an opportunity to escape a Blitz-frenzied London for America saw Angela fall into a series of roles that would make her the famous star we know and love today. Beginning as an MGM contract actress earning $500 a week in 1942, Lansbury had breakout roles in Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray. However, despite two Oscar nominations and a Golden Globe Award, a disappointing streak of small roles as elder women left Lansbury disillusioned by the screen, pushed her to resign from MGM. For a time Lansbury sought financial support in state benefits, a period in her life that she ascribes to the ‘socialist in her’, inherited from her politician grandfather George Lansbury, campaigner for women’s suffrage.
Weston goes on to delicately investigate the domestic tensions that ran alongside Lansbury’s life in the spotlight: two marriages – the latter with Peter Shaw a great success – as well as two children suffering from drug and substance abuse, all the while negotiating the male-dominated sphere of Hollywood. In the second half of the show we experience the determination of Lansbury to give a voice to women in the arts, with hard-earned parts such as the beloved Aunty Mame, Sweeney Todd’s Mrs Lovett, the witchcraft learning Miss Price in Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and the role that put her on the map amongst the TV generation of 1984 in the detective drama series, Murder She Wrote.
This unique and inspired one-woman show is a celebration of Lansbury’s 90th birthday (the audience was pleasantly surprised that cake was involved from the Patisserie Valerie), with audience sing-a-long participation and an animated crowd. Fiona-Jane Weston succeeds in showing her audience as she serenades in her final song,‘You’ll never get away from me’ from Gypsy, that Angela really shall never leave the hearts of her fans, so ingrained is she in the history and evolution of the dramatic arts over the past century. Whether you see her as oddly lovable Jessica Fletcher or Beauty and the Beast’s charming teapot Mrs. Potts, there is an Angela Lansbury for everyone.
Devised by Fiona-Jane Weston and Patrick Lambe and starring Fiona-Jane Weston
Piano and musical direction by William Godfree
Choreography by Louisa McAlpine
Costumes by Allbone & Trimitt