Mistletoe. Jingle bells. Things going ‘bump’ in the night. The Christmas ghost story is surely one of the best festive traditions there is: when better to scare yourself silly than at the warmest, fuzziest time of year? But if you go to the Finborough expecting a Dickensian chain-rattler from RC Sherriff’s The White Carnation – unstaged since its 1953 premiere – you may well be sorely…somethinged. It feels disingenuous to say ‘disappointed’ when what I suppose I really mean is stumped. This is not so much a ghost story as a bizarre musing on the logistical and administrative inconveniences of being dead.
John Greenwood’s annual Christmas Eve party ends suddenly, with a slammed door and an empty house that should still be half-full. When he finds his wife and maids have gone too, and the house he left five minutes ago in a state of eerie disrepair, he’s inclined to think the whole thing is a practical joke gone rather too far. But after the police catch Greenwood breaking his own window, he meets an old friend who looks at him like he’s seen a ghost – and it soon transpires that he has.
Sherriff is still best known for Journey’s End, his moving evocation of life in the trenches during World War I; The White Carnation came rather later in his career, more than twenty years after Journey’s End. The fact this play hasn’t been revived until now can perhaps be partially attributed to its being strangely ahead of its time, its silliness undercut by genuine bitterness that is evocative of Monty Python’s more anti-establishment material.
As the bureaucratic fallout from Greenwood’s unwanted ghostly presence increases, The White Carnation becomes a bleakly funny tale of a man pitted against the machines of law, progress and reason, the things he has believed in all his life. It’s strangely moving at times, and there are plenty of decent jokes, but you get a sense that neither the audience nor company were quite clear how to approach this play. The performances are tonally mixed, with Aden Gillett playing it fairly straight as Greenwood, while his party guests, unable to quite resist the charms of 1953 accents, ham things up BBC wireless-style. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of period fun, especially at Christmas, but it does sometimes feel like some of the cast have wandered in from wholly different productions.
Gillett is disarmingly likeable as Greenwood and there’s a fantastic turn from Benjamin Whitrow as the well-meaning, if inactive local vicar, but with uneven direction from Knight Mantell and a slight air of under-rehearsal, as a whole The White Carnation doesn’t quite come together. It does feel as if the company aren’t quite sure what they’ve got on their hands here: a little more faith in the material would pay dividends though, as this is a bizarre but intriguing little play that still has something to say about the English legal machine and its cruel politeness, smiling as it steamrollers you.
Credit to the Finborough though for rediscovering this odd little gem; it would be nice to think The White Carnation, like its ghostly protagonist, might go on to have a further life, even if this incarnation doesn’t quite do it justice.