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A great Dame

Dame Angela Lansbury was a true genius and stage animal. The world has lost a real presence

Angela Lansbury, 1955-1965. Photo: Pictorial Parade/ Archive Photos/Getty

That utter rarity, a great actor, can do many things. But they only truly exist in one space.

Dame Angela Lansbury existed on the stage. It was there that she displayed the complete measure of her talent. Her genius. Maybe this was because her mother was the great Irish actor Moyna Macgill.

Those who knew Dame Angela would say that she attributed the Irish part of her for giving her the courage to be onstage at all. She had a strong connection with Ireland.

She would speak of her grandmother, Cissy McIldowie, who came to Cork from Northern Ireland every year for holidays. Dame Angela’s mother took her children to visit their grandmother there every year until war broke out. Later, she herself kept a house in Cork, in memory of those summers with her mother and grandmother.

She first came to the attention of the world during Hollywood’s golden age. Her studio was Metro Goldywn Mayer, the top of the tree.

Aided by her ambitious mother, whose social network in Hollywood was almost unparalleled, her debut for Metro was Gaslight. The 17-year-old Angela had to have a social worker on set, by law.

The lead was Ingrid Bergman, then on the way to becoming one of what’s now called a GOAT – “Greatest Of All Time.” Yet the teenage Angela held her own opposite her, so much so that she was nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar. In her first film. Then there was National Velvet, with an impossibly beautiful, barely-out-of-childhood Elizabeth Taylor, with whom she was to reunite 40 years later when she played Miss Marple to Taylor’s broken movie star in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d.

During the war, Dame Angela played a Cockney songstress sweetly singing a tune onstage called Little Yellow Bird that temporarily stayed the evil side of Dorian Gray. She would flip that soon after and become a Wild West saloon hussy, singing and dancing Judy Garland almost offscreen in The Harvey Girls.

This great star could take your eyes away from Hedy Lamarr, Orson Welles, Gene Kelly, Katharine Hepburn, Laurence Harvey, Peter Sellers, Bette Davis, Peter Ustinov and the queen of the scene stealers, Maggie Smith.

Yet she could also make you believe that Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote was the only thing she ever really did.

Where she existed, where she really was incandescent, was on the stage. Broadway is mourning this Irish-British-American actor and musical theatre titan as one of their own and so they should. Because even though she triumphed on the British stage, she belonged to Broadway.

Just watch Stephen Sondheim’s face as she sings Send In The Clowns during his Kennedy Center tribute in 2013. Sondheim is the master composer/songwriter who had written that lament about being an ageing diva for the great Welsh actor Glynis Johns, someone who had the most extraordinary voice, but was not known to be a stage singer.

Sondheim’s genius captured a poignancy in that, utilised it, broke our heart with it as the centrepiece of his A Little Night Music.

Yet on YouTube we can see Dame Angela prowling the stage; almost feral, assessing the audience, defying them to contradict her. Her energy, her force, is the very opposite of the song’s intention. Yet she lands it, and in doing so, makes us see the entire musical anew.

Hal Prince’s production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street on Broadway at the end of the 1970s is the only production that I have ever seen twice.

A friend worked backstage and so I was able to get a seat in what theatre people sometimes call “the gods”, because it is so high up that you feel next to the heavens. The stage was very far away, yet I could see and feel everything. It was because of her.

Prince had created a kind of steampunk Victorian London. The stage was almost bare by Broadway musical standards and had the air of the pit of hell. It felt like the kind of fairytale that could be imagined by a 19th-century opium smoker: blurry; evil.

Yet there was something universally human on that stage because in the midst of it all was Angela Lansbury’s Mrs Lovett, the working class accomplice to a serial killer.

That was the character description, but Dame Angela made her more than that.

The reason might be because her father was Edgar Lansbury, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and a former mayor of the London borough of Poplar. He was the second Communist mayor in London, as well as a campaigner for the right of women to vote.

Her aunt, Daisy Postgate, Edgar’s sister, was said to have dressed up as Sylvia Pankhurst to help the suffragette leader get away from the cops. Their father, Dame Angela’s grandfather, was George Lansbury, leader of the Labour Party before Clement Attlee.

A self-described “proud socialist” all of her life, Dame Angela helped out-of-work actors. She gave one actor a recurring role on Murder She Wrote so she would make just enough money to qualify for medical cover through the US actors’ union.

I like to think that her beloved father and his family passed on to her an insight and compassion for working people: an understanding of Nellie Lovett.

From the comic The Worst Pies In London to the wistful By The Sea and the defiant Not While I’m Around, to the epilogue where she emerges from Hell with Sweeney to sing Attend The Tale Of Sweeney Todd, her Lovett ran the gamut of human emotion.

And too, we saw and we heard what the voice and the body in a musical can truly do.

I came back and saw that production again because I couldn’t believe that I’d seen it the first time.

I did not believe, somewhere in the part of me that is a playwright, a theatre person, that it had even existed. It was like a dream. One of perfection.

And Dame Angela Lansbury was a true stage animal.

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