Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost gives little away to begin with, making it difficult to know what to expect. However, any initial trepidation and feelings of unease are kept at bay by the warmth and humour that is injected into the show by the plot and actors as they recount their tale.
This show... will haunt us for a while yet
This play within a play recounts the tale of the Otis family as they move into Canterville Chase and their interactions with its resident ghost, Sir Simon de Canterville, which is bookended by solo performances by The Comedian (Matt Jopling), The Illusionist (Callum Patrick Hughes), the Psychic (Katie Tranter), and The Compère (Steve Watts) who accompanies and directs the action. Full of illusions that leave us baffled with over-exaggerated humour and craftsmanship, the self-aware, vaudevillian character of The Canterville Ghost allows for the thematic overtones of death and legacy to never fully bring down the overall mood of the theatre.
The setting of the music hall distances us from the performance, making us more open to the supernatural elements at the heart of the story. The musical hall itself is represented in Barney’s George’s design by a curtain and an upright piano, which turn into the halls of Canterville Chase as we are taken in and out of the Wilde's plot. It’s a simple set, but the added sound cues help us imagine that we are being transported to a much grander setting than the one that we see. The shadows cast by Peter Harrison’s lighting focalize and cast a blanket of silence over the action that increases the tension onstage. The wit and well-timed humour of Jacobs and Mitchell’s script and direction completely shatter any initial expectations that we may have and bring a joviality to the show despite its heavy sentiments. The parallels that they create between the Canterville Ghost and the Great Vanishing Act are incredibly subtle, the plot gently tweazing out the thematic strands before completely blurring the lines between fact and fiction. This show carefully navigates the line between joyful and somber, crossing the line where appropriate and showing that the two are perhaps closer than the extreme opposites we would assume them to be.
Individual performances and illusions by the cast leave us in a state of wonder and bewilderment, not only adding to the ghostly atmosphere but providing light entertainment in the form of magic tricks, a cleverly euphemistic ventriloquist act and a psychic that both poke fun at the thinly veiled coincidences of the genre. Hughes finds his stage as Mrs Umney the housekeeper and Sir Simon de Canterville, playing the roles in a melodramatic, almost Hugh Laurie-esque fashion in a truly masterful and over-exaggerated comedic performance. Jopling’s ventriloquist act uses word play with an element of self-ridicule to create an incredibly funny and crass break in the narrative. The give and take between Jopling and the puppet, Eddie, adds a cartoonish element to the show that onyl serves to increase its light-hearted nature. Tranter leans into her psychic persona, using audience participation and the nature of coincidences in an expert fashion, poking fun at the type of act itself. In Tranter’s portrayal of Virginia Otis, we come to see true goodness and kind-heartedness, in both the hijinks that she pulls on the ghost and the humanity she shows towards him. Watts as the Compère is an incredibly comforting presence and guide, like a friendly Chiron guiding us between the realm of the dead and living; he’s incredibly warm and his performance informs the atmosphere of the show as much as the technical aspects do. He’s reliable and grounds the action that we see, acting as a candle in the darkness, and that warmth that we associate with Watts makes the reality of some moments all the more tragic.
We cannot help but be haunted by Jacobs and Mitchell’s adaptation of Wilde’s novel. Whilst the spirits in The Canterville Ghost may have been put to rest, this show and the words, ‘whether you perish young or old, make sure your story is well told’, will haunt us for a while yet.