Looking for Lansbury – St James Street Theatre, until 17 October 2015 (Future dates click here)
The target audience for Looking for Lansbury may be one that is already quite well-versed in the life of its subject. However if Fiona-Jane Weston’s one-woman show exploring the life of Angela Lansbury provides little in the way of revelation (even to a novice Lansburyian), it does a creditable job in avoiding falling into sugary hagiography.
Weston pitches her all-singing, some-dancing, variety show part way between biographical lecture and conversational cabaret. It starts off with a strong statement of intent as Weston sets out her case but as Lansbury’s career as a leading light of the stage begins to take off it increasingly resembles a procession of Broadway belters interspersed with conversational snippets.
The opening provides a backstory that takes in Angela’s grandfather, George Lansbury (former Labour Party leader) and his role as a social reformer. We get a potted history of her English upbringing before being whisked across the Atlantic, and into her remarkable early successes in film – two Oscar nominations in her first two roles (Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray) – before charting her life on stage and screen.
A slight problem is that Lansbury is an intensely private individual; there is little in the public domain to draw on and much content is given by way of inference or supposition. The snippets we do get, such as a Hollywood magazine article on her first husband Richard Cromwell, are uncomfortably salacious for a show that seems to wish to avoid the tittle-tattle of unauthorized biography.
Little moments hint at more interesting stories hiding just behind the curtain. Why Angela Lansbury married a much older man who she knew to be gay is just one? For someone who preached respectability, how come here children ended-up so heavily involved in counter-cultural activities and the drug scene? What was it that caused the tour of Mame – styled to follow the route taken by Yul Bryner’s shatteringly successful The King & I – to be such an unmitigated disaster?
However the evening is a lot of fun and strengthened considerably by Weston, a talented variety performer. This type of show requires a certain versatility, with the need to jump in and out of musical style and give voice to an array of different characters. Mercifully Weston makes the sensible decision to only occasional attempt to embody Lansbury directly, and does not try very hard to look like her. The show is aimed as a genuine exploration rather than a pantomime pastiche.
It helps that there is a sparkling back catalogue to draw from – with Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Hermann particularly well represented – and rather than perform them in a strictly chronological order, Weston has a habit of using them thematically. So By The Sea makes an appearance when by a house overlooking the Pacific, and A Taste of Honey is used, perhaps slightly on the nose, to mark her appearance in Shelagh Delaney’s ground-breaking play.
It may only really appeal to the converted, but for the fan-base I imagine Looking for Lansbury will prove to be a welcome treat.