Charles Edwards has quietly but firmly asserted himself as one of the finest English actors of his generation, moving from London and Broadway runs in The 39 Steps, to National Theatre stints in This House and Strange Interlude, to a buoyant Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare’s Globe—oh, and as Lady Edith's love interest in Downton Abbey, too. But this month he has arguably his highest-profile stage gig to date, starring opposite Dame Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit, opening March 18 at the Gielgud Theatre. Both Lansbury and Edwards are reprising their roles in the Noel Coward comic classic—Lansbury won a Tony Award for her performance in Michael Blakemore’s 2009 Broadway revival, while Edwards made his theatrical debut as novelist Charles Condomine in 1993. Broadway.com chatted with Edwards about sharing the stage with a spritely 88-year-old, channeling Jennifer Lawrence and the “great fun” of filming Downton Abbey.
This production has the feel of something special, in part because of its leading lady. Does it feel that way from the inside?
Without a doubt, it has been very special to be part of the feeling that is generated every night by the London audience seeing Angela back on stage. There is applause on her entrance, which I think is quite right, and the reception has been extremely warm.
And the fact that she will be 89 later this year really is extraordinary.
Yes, but you just simply wouldn’t know it. She’s got so much vitality in her body and in herself—she’s extraordinary.
The rehearsals must have brought back copious memories for her.
What’s been wonderful is to hear about Angela’s life. She’s often quoted as being born in the East End but actually she was born in Regent’s Park, where we rehearsed, and her grandfather, George Lansbury, was a Labour politician, and then of course her mother was an actress who made her debut at the very theater where we are now. All that is very touching for her to remember and she does so with such vivacity. There’s no sense of the wandering recollections of a woman of a certain age. She remembers it all as if it were yesterday.
Presumably there have been concessions made to age—naps, for instance?
[Laughs.] Any naps have taken place during the lunch break and not during afternoon rehearsals! What’s amazing is that we have a director [Michael Blakemore] who is himself 85, though he’s another one where you simply would not guess it. And if he or Angela sometimes like a rest at lunchtime, so do I.
Angela Lansbury and Michael Blakemore previously collaborated on this play five years ago on Broadway. Has that made a difference for you and the other new cast members?
We were all certainly aware that Michael had done the play before and had a blueprint of it, and he has also referenced original Coward productions at various times. But naturally because we were a new cast, anything was welcome and there was no suggestion of “we did it this way before.” In that way, it’s been quite different to The 39 Steps, where people who have subsequently played Hannay have had to stick to a fairly rigid blueprint. There’s been none of that for us.
You’re no stranger to Coward, having appeared in Hay Fever and Private Lives.
In fact, my very first play out of drama school was Blithe Spirit at Harrogate [in Yorkshire] when I was 24! All I remember is coming down the stairs all suave and sophisticated and then tripping on the carpet, and that was my very first professional entrance [laughs].
Think of that as your Jennifer Lawrence moment! But 24? That must have been a challenge given the history Charles has in the play.
Yes, I know, what with [first wife] Elvira having been dead for seven years and Charles having been married to [second wife] Ruth for five. I was too young to take much else of what the play was saying into account.
I think it’s a fascinating play, not least the extent to which Charles is surrounded—hounded, even—by the women he loved, whom he must then escape.
Yes, it’s such a fascinating oddity, this one. I do think as always in Coward there’s that element in his central male character of the drifter and the traveler and the man who just won’t commit. It’s as if Coward is going, “Isn’t it wonderful not to have any ties?”
Yes, and in Blithe Spirit, there’s the added factor of more stage business than in any other Coward play. So it's got physical comedy folded into the mix, as well.
The verbal repartee of Coward is rewarding but it can also be a little wearing, so what’s immensely satisfying here is the way the play escalates into extreme Feydeau-like, farcical situations. Those extremities are great fun and at the same time the play is asking how human beings handle the wilting of a sex life and can a relationship survive that. It’s a very interesting play.
We have to touch on Downton Abbey and your distinguished arrival in season three as Michael Gregson, the society editor who captures Lady Edith’s heart. Is he coming back?
That was great fun, and I miss Laura Carmichael [Lady Edith] very much. We had a really lovely time. But I can honestly tell you I have no idea what happens next. I really haven’t any idea at all. Michael is still trying to get a divorce, but of course is also the father of Edith’s child, so if that leads anywhere, he’ll want to see the child.
It sounds as if you are on tenterhooks just as we are.
Actors are often the last people to know!