The Canterville Ghost has always been one of my favourite stories from when I was younger, along with the play The Rivals which I studied when doing my A Level In English Literature and both have stayed firm favourites as I have grown older, and so I was really curious to see this adaptation at the Unicorn Theatre near London Bridge. This was my first time visiting this particular theatre and I was impressed with the actual working theatre space inside. The Unicorn is the UK's leading theatre for young audiences and has an extremely wide programme for children up to 18 yrs old.
So for anyone who isn't familiar with the Oscar Wilde piece,The Canterville Ghost is a story about an American family who move to a castle that is haunted by the ghost of a deceased ancestor, Sir Simon Canterville, who killed his wife and was then starved to death by her brothers! What makes it different from other ghost stories is the fact that it's funny rather than scary and the characters are not frightened by the ghost at all.
Although the story itself is set in a time gone by era, the humour is most certainly modern and directed at the younger audience of today (and us that are young at heart) which definitely captures their interest right from the start.
This adaptation opens with Annie Fitzmaurice as Oscar introducing the American family in a 'freeze frame' fashion so we know who the characters are, and by instantly pressing humorous button in your mind as an audience you know it is going to be funny throughout. Annie instantly excels when you meet her other character, Mrs Umney, the Scottish house maid of Lord Canterville of Canterville Chase, and takes no prisoners in her wake as she meets and deals with the Otis family ( especially the mischievous twins!).
Paul McEwan is fantastic at the portrayal of the ghost, Sir Simon Canterville, an extremely funny, determined but quite a sad character underneath. You immediately empathise with him (unless you are completely heartless) from his first unsuccessful haunting of Mr and Mrs Otis, on their first night, when you realise they are not afraid of him at all but see him more of an inconvenience. As the story goes on he becomes more ridiculous in his attempts and you find you are literally willing him on to do well. His character completely captures the audience, young and old alike, as he becomes more outrageous at his feeble haunting attempts. His humour is played so earnestly in character it just makes you laugh more.
The set design itself, by Rosie Elnile, is simplistic but effective and lends itself to the movement that's needed to create different spaces within the manor house. It's cleverly worked to enhance the storytelling, most notably as Virginia is wandering through the house in the dark following the crying noises she hears, where the long tables are moved in sync to portray the long corridors. But most ingeniously it's the upright bed that makes the audience literally laugh out loud initially at its absurdity. Visually it was a brilliant way for the story to be told and for the audience to fully see what was happening, it was a clever use of props and by thinking outside the box creating another comedic level it was definitely appreciated by the audience.
The story has interruptions along the way by way of old fashioned style adverts and magic tricks that brilliantly showcase the crazy concoctions and inventions of Washington Otis, who is clearly an early entrepreneur in the making. Think black and white TV, with almost Harold Lloyd style capers with a music interlude and you will be on the right track, perfectly capturing everyone's interest without using any long dialogue over explanations!
The cast gel together very well and make it all look effortless, with each having their own story to tell along with the collective theme. It's well directed by Justin Audibert cleverly using the space available and with a young audience in mind, yet with no compromise to the story or the characters.
It was a sold out, mixed age audience at this performance and it was plain to see and hear that it was enjoyed by all. This is a fun family production to see this festive period and offers a fabulous alternative to the mainstream panto for Christmas outings. This is a real treat to both those that already love the story and those that are yet to discover it.
It runs until 5 January
Review: Tracy Bailey Photo: Manuel Harlan