The company. Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost. Unicorn Theatre. Photo Manuel Harlan.

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde at the Unicorn Theatre

Paul McEwan. Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost. Unicorn Theatre. Photo Manuel Harlan.
Paul McEwan. Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost. Unicorn Theatre. Photo Manuel Harlan.

Whilst Dickens has pretty much cornered the spooky-meets-heart-warming Christmas theatre tradition, Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost (written only some 40 years after A Christmas Carol) makes an interesting festive family alternative without any explicit yuletide subject matter. The work is as droll and arch as you’d expect from the legendary 19th century wit plus offers plenty of gothic flourish and some fine uplifting moral redemption. As my seven-year-old son said, ‘this is like a horror play but it’s also really funny!’ Visually lush, camp, whacky and occasionally terrifying to youngsters, Anthony Weigh’s stage adaptation of Wilde’s short story is, in the main, absorbing and entertaining whilst also giving the Unicorn Theatre’s artistic director, Justin Audibert, plenty with which to have fun.

Audibert’s Taming of the Shrew for the RSC is also currently playing across town and his strong visual and aural sensibilities are as present in the Unicorn as at the Barbican. Forget what you know about shoestring touring ‘children’s theatre’. Although he very unlikely has anything close to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s resources on this occasion, Audibert’s production values will tolerate no anachronistic prop nor approximate costuming decision and Rosie Elnile’s set and costume design delivery handsomely; adding texture and pleasure to the experience. Likewise, Prema Mehta’s lighting design is outstanding and absolutely crucial not only to the ‘haunted’ manor house’s ambience but also to key heart-in-the-mouth ghostly moments. The details of this production are myriad and gorgeous and some of the staging is so clever it makes you feel smart just to watch it. Ed Lewis’ composition and sound design is equally strong, although finding the right level of immersive and imposing for an audience with so many primary-school-aged children is challenging. On one hand he must drown out the constant rustling of the young audience’s crisp packets that seem to plague this production (for some reason the Unicorn doesn’t seem to enforce its ‘no eating in the theatre’ rule) but on the other hand he doesn’t want to send junior school kids into cardiac arrest with overwhelming thunder claps.

The cast is strong and convincing as they broadly play either ‘ugly Americans’ or ‘smug gentry’ (or their staff). Paul McEwan as Sir Simon Canterville gives a committed and thorough performance of a role that demands a certain amount of scenery-chewing that he absolutely delivers. With the same sort of over-the-top ultra-thespian joy of Hugh Grant in Paddington II, he has fun with some great set pieces. However, if you are bringing children at the younger end of the recommended age bracket, you might want to consider not sitting too near the stage where you may find a degree of interaction that can prove somewhat frightening for younger children.

Safiyya Ingar as Virginia Otis grows as the play progresses, shifting from yet another of the unruly yanks to a central and moving character. Annie Fizmaurice gives a well-crafted and highly entertaining turn as Canterville Chase’s long-tormented Scottish housekeeper Mrs Umney but her dual role as ‘Oscar’ reveals a weaker aspect of Weigh’s adaptation.

The original work by Oscar Wilde jumps straight into the arrival of the American diplomats at the haunted manor house the Minister to the Court of St James, Mr Hiram B Otis, has purchased. For some reason Weigh decides the kitschy American-ness of the Otis family needs to be characterised with a world-building brunch with much ovation of maple syrup. In itself this wouldn’t be a bad way to start but it is preceded by a fourth-wall-breaking prologue about the relative sizes of England and the United States. The odd little lecture neither establishes any useful context for the play nor knows to whom its pitched. Much of the play’s strength is its multi-layered approach. There is a good deal of original Wilde vocabulary that would go over many heads but the visual action and comic business provides plenty of other connection for the less sophisticated or mature members of the audience. All the parabasis (presumably ‘Oscar’ is meant to be the author?) does is slow the action down; or as my seven-year-old daughter said: ‘the explainer at the beginning was a bit boring’. She’s right; it dragged for the first 10 minutes or so which is a shame as the rest of the work has an excellent rhythm and pace.

Whilst The Canterville Ghost relies on certain broad characterisations (that verge on stereotypes) and a familiar ghost story set-up, it is just that little bit wonderfully weird (without being so subversive that you’d have to spend the rest of the day explaining the references to your children) to be refreshing and memorable. If you really want a new Christmas tradition that eschews Dickens and panto (but don’t want anyone in your family to know that’s what you’re doing) a little family Oscar Wilde at the Unicorn could be just the ticket!

4 Stars

Review by Mary Beer

This frighteningly funny and delightfully spooky retelling of Oscar Wilde’s comic novel is bought to life this Christmas with spine-tingling magic, spectacular illusions and ghoulish effects.

Mr and Mrs Otis and their boisterous children arrive from America to move into Canterville Chase – a rather old, rather creepy Gothic mansion. Of course, like all the best old mansions, the Chase comes with its own ghost – the rather tormented Sir Simon Canterville. The spectral knight does his very best to spook the trespassers from his ancestral home, but to no avail. Poor Sir Simon feels utter despair until he meets the young Virginia Otis who sees him for who is really is.

This is a warming winter treat that the whole family will enjoy.
Adapted by Anthony Weigh
Directed by Justin Audibert
Designed by Rosie Elnile
Lighting design by Prema Mehta
Composed and sound designed by Ed Lewis
Magic by John Bulleid
Movement Direction by Simon Pittman
Sunday 10 November 2019 – Sunday 5 January 2020

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