Sometimes, all you need for a great night out at the theatre is a story of an American family living in an English stately home, haunted by a theatrical, sleep-deprived ghost. The Unicorn Theatre’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s short story ‘The Canterville Ghost’ takes the already fun source material and adds magic and illusions, playful costumes and set design, and an all-around charming cast to stage this witty satire with flair.
It’s the 1910s, and the Otis family of 96th St, New York City are about to be uprooted from the country they love for a stint in old, rainy, drab and outdated England. The family is a good ol’ slice of the American dream: Hiram Otis (played with bouncy optimism by Nana Amoo-Gottfried) and his no-nonsense interior designer wife Lucretia Otis (played with the right balance of American persistence) are raising their children Washington (charmingly played by Nathaniel Wade), Virginia (the hero of our story, delightfully played by Safiyya ingar) and the twins Stars and Stripes (a dynamic duo act by Mae Munuo and Rose-Marie Christian respectively) to be rational, modern-thinking, inventive Americans, always working to get ahead. They brunch on pancakes every morning, and Washington is always fiddling at the table with his latest invention. But the family has some difficulty adjusting to their new English home, Canterville Chase, after being relocated for Hiram’s new job. The old, run-down manor, and the crotchety, morbid housekeeper Ms Umney (a ridiculously fun role for Annie Fitzmaurice) who comes with the territory, are a shock after the modern, bright way of life they knew in New York. And the ghost that haunts their new abode is such an inconvenience!
The ghost, Sir Simon Canterville, is baffled by the family’s responses to his classic haunts: blood stains on the rug, appearing at the couple’s bed in a creaking suit of armour, groaning and moaning. Do they scream and run away? No, they pull out the latest American product, use it to clean up the blood or oil the creaky armour, and then sell their products to him. Paul McEwan plays a panto-worthy theatrical version of this frustrated ghost. He despairs to us that his usual tricks haven’t worked, and lays his head down beside his wardrobe of brightly coloured dresses, robes and other haunting costumes and wigs. After 300 years on the job, he’s turned being a ghost into an art. But, led by daughter Virginia Otis’s pure caring heart, he learns to ask forgiveness and find peace.
Anthony Weigh’s adaptation finds a happy balance between maintaining the fun and punny eloquence of Oscar Wilde’s original and clarifying the language for a wider, 21st century audience. Although some of the emphasis on Wilde’s alliterations sounds like integrated vocabulary lessons, the production gives its audience the level of trust and respect they deserve. Our narrator, Oscar Wilde himself, (played with mischievous energy by Annie Fitzmaurice) warmly guides us through the story, freeze-framing the action to explain the finer points.
There’s a sense of magic in every aspect of director Justin Audibert’s production: Rosie Elnile’s set pieces use fun tricks with perspective, using versatile long tables that rotate and move to form corridors and hidden passageways; Ed Lewis’ haunting sounds are seriously spooky; Prema Mehta’s lighting design brings out the fun of the ghost scenes with strobe lights; John Bulleid’s magic illusions and effects are seamlessly integrated into the story.
Tonally though, the production seems to struggle at times between the ironic tone needed to highlight how silly those commercial, rationalist Americans are and the genuine thrill of a ghost story. Advertisement interludes in which the family members show off the product they’ve used to solve a problem in the story are a brilliant touch, and a fun opportunity to show off some classic magic tricks, even if they tend to break the pace of the narrative. Judging by the laughter that followed the sawing-in-half trick, I don’t think it matters that much.
But in amongst all the Wilde satire and melodrama, my favourite part had to be when the ghost nonchalantly made a glass bottle hover in the air, before sending it crashing to the floor, and the child sat in front of me leaned into their parent beside them and asked in an awed whisper, ‘How did he do that?’ I mean, ghosts, magic, awed children and silliness – what more could I ask for?
The Canterville Ghost is on at Unicorn Theatre until 5th January 2020. More info and tickets here.