One of the joys of theatre is seeing how differently the same story can be interpreted. In 2019 we reviewed the Unicorn Theatre’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost (which was aimed at ages 7 to 12). Three years later, there is a new production of The Canterville Ghost playing at another of our favourite venues, Southwark Playhouse (this one aimed at an older audience, and recommended for ages 12+). In spite of the age suggestion, Mummy decided to risk taking nine year old Quaver to review the show this weekend.
First things first – there is a very clear reason why The Canterville Ghost is recommended for ages 12+ and it has little to do with the ghost story (which is not as scary or as dark as either the original novella or the Unicorn production). When booking tickets, you will come across a warning that the play contains “moments of puppet profanity”. What this refers to is a foul-mouthed ventriloquist’s dummy, operated by The Comedian (Matt Joplin) who would give Miriam Margolyes a run for her money. We had suspected that this would be the reason for the age recommendation and don’t mind the munchkins being exposed to swearing, as it allows us to have conversations about appropriate use of language. (Quaver spent the interval talking about how it’s ok to use the word ‘Dick’ as long as she’s referring to the character in The Famous Five!) There is also some innuendo but it’s the sort of thing you would come across in panto, and went right over her head.
Those familiar with the source material may be querying what role a ventriloquist’s dummy has to play in The Canterville Ghost. The answer (and a source of frustration for the dummy himself) is none. Because this is not a straight retelling of the Oscar Wilde classic. In fact, The Canterville Ghost is something of a side show in this music hall style production which sees four Vaudeville performers perform their own individual acts in between the six short segments of the ghost story.
One moment, The Illusionist (Callum Patrick Hughes) is dazzling the audience with magic tricks, the next he is clattering chains about as Sir Simon de Canterville, the resident spectre at Canterville Hall. Sir Simon has been scaring off the house’s inhabitants for years, until nobody is left but longtime housekeeper, Mrs Umney (also played hilariously by The Illusionist/Callum Patrick Hughes). But all that changes when the Otis family move in and prove themselves utterly unbothered by the ghostly goings on in their new home. Despite breaking out every trick he knows, Sir Simon just can’t shock twins William (The Comedian (Matt Joplin)) and Virginia Otis (The Psychic (Katie Tranter)). Tranter’s segment as The Psychic is particuarly entertaining and was Quaver’s favourite part of the show, even though she was a tad disappointed not to be called on for any audience participation – The front row of Southwark Playhouse is always a dangerous place but we’d definitely recommend going higher up if you don’t want to become part of The Psychic’s act!
The quartet is completed by The Compete (Steve Watts), who introduces the acts, narrates the story and takes on the role of head of the household, Mr Otis (as well as providing the piano accompaniment to the many songs). His part is less comedic than the other three but serves an important purpose, weaving together the different sections of the show. Because while it initially feels odd to stage The Canterville Ghost in this disjointed way, we soon start to see parallels between the story of Sir Simon de Canterville and the troupe who tell his tale, before the stories converge in a haunting finale.
It’s a great premise which is extremely well executed and absolutely hilarious in places, although it entails a fairly significant change to The Canterville Ghost to turn it into a story of wrongful accusation rather than forgiveness. It’s a neat twist but does result in a softer story, losing some of Wilde’s wicked humour in the process (albeit replaced with some splendidly silly moments of which Wilde would no doubt approve). Perhaps unsurprisingly from a company which regularly produces theatre for young audiences, the tweaks to the original story feel well suited to a family audience – but the puppet most certainly isn’t!
Overall, The Canterville Ghost is a highly entertaining production which uses good old-fashioned music hall magic to razzle dazzle an Oscar Wilde classic. While the ghost story itself may be less prominent than you may expect, it’s fantastically funny and full of brilliant illusions which may have you querying whether something supernatural is actually going on at Southwark Playhouse. A perfect production for Halloween.
The Canterville Ghost plays at Southwark Playhouse from 11 October to 5 November 2022. We received complimentary press tickets to the matinee on Saturday 15 October.