REVIEW: The Canterville Ghost (Unicorn Theatre)

One great thing about having a 6 and 7 year old is that we now straddle the boundary between two different age categories at the Unicorn Theatre. So this weekend we made our first foray into the Age 7+ category. This has somewhat confused the munchkins because they class anything with an interval as a ‘grown-up show’. But they have also discovered that this means interval ice-cream!

The Canterville Ghost is an adaptation of an Oscar Wilde short story about an American family who move into a haunted English mansion. Sir Simon de Canterville, the ghost of Canterville Chase, has already seen off many inhabitants of his ancestral home. But he is no match for the Americans. Try as he might, his attempts to scare the Otis family result in a range of unexpected responses from helpful suggestions as to how he might stop his suit of armour squeaking to an elaborate prank in which the family try to spook him back. Tormented by this brash and seemingly fearless family will Sir Simon eventually give up the ghost?

Anthony Weigh’s adaptation (directed by the Unicorn’s artistic director, Justin Audibert) is a frightfully funny retelling of Wilde’s classic story. A bold choice for a Christmas production, it has echoes of A Christmas Carol, but without the festive setting. It’s deliciously dark, with macabre humour and farce giving way to pathos as we eventually hear Sir Simon’s side of the story that condemned him to walk the hallways of Canterville Chase. While her family frantically search for her, Virginia Otis (rather unlike the rest of her loud and self-obsessed family) has slipped deep into the bowels of the mansion, concerned about the crying that she hears below. There she encounters Sir Simon and hears how he was starved to death by the family of his murdered wife, as punishment for killing her (for her crimes against cooking). Unable to eat or sleep ever again, Sir Simon needs Virginia’s help to finally be at peace.

The story has been tweaked slightly to make it suitable for a younger audience, although it remains pretty dark in places, but the script still very much captures Wilde’s wicked humour. Paul McEwan is hilarious as Sir Simon, dramatically bemoaning his inability to either scare the Otises or convince them of the artistry of his ghostly craft. The Otises themselves have had their characters updated, with pancake-loving Hiram Otis (Nana Amoo-Gottfried) becoming a diplomat instead of a minister and his wife Lucretia (Beth Cordingly) a celebrated interior designer. The latter change is a stroke of genuis, which allows plenty of jokes about the furnishings at Canterville Chase, including the bloodstained rug upon which Sir Simon’s wife met her untimely end. Eldest son Washington (Nathaniel Wade) becomes an inventor while twin brothers Stars and Stripes ( Mae Munuo and Rose-Marie Christian) are child actors. This allows for the inclusion of some entertaining interludes involving commercials for Washington’s products. The cast is completed by Safiyya Ingar as Virginia and Annie Fitzmaurice as housekeeper-cum-narrator Mrs Umney/Oscar. Though Wilde’s language is certainly not dumbed down for its young audience, the narrator character (played with a real sense of mischief by Fitzmaurice) really helps to guide the audience through the story.

It’s all brought together on Rosie Elnile’s simple but effective set, with some fabulous lighting from Prema Mehta and some fun illusions created by John Bulleid, particularly the moment where Sir Simon appears with his head under his arm. It’s all just on the right side of scary for the 7+ age range. Both munchkins had moments where they wanted to hold our hands but both enjoyed the show overall. (For context, Crotchet (7) is the sort of child who refuses to get on a ghost train and cannot countenance sleeping with the light off! Quaver (6) has been on The Phantom Manor and The Tower of Terror at Disneyland but has possibly been scarred forever by the latter.) There were some minor sound issues at the preview we saw, but we were sitting right in front of the production team and heard their plans for putting it right, so have no doubt that this was all sorted by opening night.

All in all, this is a great production which provides a nice alternative to the other more glittery Christmas shows on offer for families. Mummy’s one slight reservation is that ultimately Sir Simon is forgiven for his sins without any real expression of remorse. He goes from darkly dismissing the murder of his wife to an emotional description of how he has suffered since. We certainly feel for him, but there’s never really a sense that he regrets what he did and we’re barely allowed to spare a thought for his wife. Though Mummy did appreciate the black humour, she wondered whether Sir Simon’s character could have had a more Scrooge-like transformation, particularly given that this was a Christmas production aimed at primary school children. On the other hand, this just gives her an excuse to take the munchkins to see A Christmas Carol for comparative purposes…….

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles and Mittens (aka 4 out of 5 of my favourite things).

The Canterville Ghost is playing at the Unicorn Theatre from 10 November 2019 to 5 January 2020.