Review by Rosie Holmes
This autumn, Southwark Playhouse is home to theatre group Tall Stories’ production of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost. This retelling pays homage to the Vaudevillian music hall acts popular in the early 20th century. Cleverly framed, the tale of the Canterville Ghost is performed to the audience by 4 music hall acts; The Comedian, The Illusionist, The Psychic and The Compere.
Compere Stephen Sublime opens the show with a ditty about how like a match we burn brightly for a brief moment and then disappear into smoke. A metaphor that continues throughout the show and provides some depth and meaning alongside the vigour and zest of the slapstick comedy of the show. The four music hall acts begin with a song asking us to leave our cares and troubles behind for the night, a great reminder at a time when perhaps people do have a lot to worry about.
The tale of The Canterville Ghost is a humorous short story. It follows the story of the Otis Family, comprised of Mr B Otis and his twin children who move into the haunted Canterville Hall. There they encounter Callum Patrick Hughes’ fabulously camp portrayal of the ghost of Simon DeCanterville who has been haunting residents of the house for 300 years. Despite the spectre’s best efforts at scaring the family, they seem unfazed leaving the ghost feeling useless. It ends with an important lesson that everybody’s stories should be told and assumptions not made.
The story of The Canterville Ghost is split into 6 sections with each section being framed by Musical Hall Variety Acts. These acts were charismatically performed and Matt Jopling’s turn with his ventriloquist dummy provided lots of laughs as the puppet whispered profanities and innuendos aplenty. In fact, the show could perhaps have done with some more of this humour. Tall Stories have produced many children’s shows and it felt to an extent like they were caught between their family friendly style and a more adult audience, not fully committing to the older audience.
Katie Tranter’s The Psychic was wonderful to watch, her tricks were equally impressive and comic. Her energy was maintained throughout and her handling of audience participation was wonderful. Callum Patrick Hughes performed delightfully as the illusionist and whilst he is by no means a magician by trade, his tricks were impressive and created gasps and smiles amongst the audience. A special shout out also has to go to his portrayal of housekeeper Mrs Umney who regales the audience with her love of fruit cake. Never did I think a joke about the use of orange peel in a fruit cake recipe would produce such laughter. His ability to break the fourth wall and interact with the audience in such an intimate way was certainly a highlight of the show.
In fact, it is this intimacy that gives the show a lot of its charm. The theatre is small and allows the audience to feel involved in the show. Barney George’s set design works effectively in such a small space. Doors on stage symbolise scene changes, a smoky piano provides the eeriest moment of the play and a clever use of lighting and silhouettes gives the show a satisfying finish. Certainly, the cast’s handling of the set could be a bit more polished, there were a few stumbles, but perhaps this adds to the charm of the piece.
The show was not I was expecting, in fact the story of the Canterville Ghost only makes up half of the play and provides less impact than the story of the performers themselves. Whilst at the beginning there was perhaps some confusion over how both parts of the show would intertwine, as the show progresses it all becomes clear.
The show is by no means a spooky ghost story but in fact a charismatic and funny tribute to the bygone days of Music Hall variety acts. It felt wonderfully cosy and with a large glass of red wine is a delightful autumnal night out. The show ends with reminder to live every day to the fullest, and to tell our stories as we never know when our match may go out. This was certainly an engaging story worth telling as the audience left with smiles aplenty on their faces.
The Canterville Ghost plays at Southwark Playhouse until 5th November 2022. Tickets from southwarkplayhouse.co.uk