Production photo of The Canterville Ghost from the Southwark Playhouse gallery. Photo credit: Charles Flint
What's not to love about a play within a play within a play?
The charming cast of the latest Southwark Playhouse production plays an intriguing group of Victorian-era performers — a psychic, a ventriloquist, an illusionist and a compère —who entertain the audience with music-hall-style acts, one of which is of course a staging of the Oscar Wilde story, The Canterville Ghost.
The show, directed by Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell based on Oscar Wilde's original, flicks back and forth between scenes from the beloved Wilde story and the performers' individual acts showcasing their talents. The latter often saw the performers break the fourth wall and engage with audience members (beware — if you're called on to participate, you don't really get much of a say in the matter).
The audience participation would have typically spooked the bee (the bee is a rather shy creature, you see) but it worked out nicely in the current setting. It made the bee feel like an eighteenth-century music hall spectator, and in those shoes, the bee reflected with fascination about what entertainment meant to the society of that era. As it turns out, audiences respond to cinematography, special effects, and emotionally evocative story-telling, and our propensity to seek these elements in the entertainment we consume (be it the theatre or video games) has not changed over time, even as forms of entertainment have evolved dramatically over the ages.
The elephant in the room — Why did The Canterville Ghost include the performers' tales?
Southwark Playhouse is an intimate theatre which, by virtue of its size, made the production all the more immersive. Jacobs and Mitchell's work elicited more than a handful of laughs from the audience, both during the performing troupe's talent acts as well as the enactment of the Wilde-inspired story. However, it was only towards the end of the play that we find out why the story of The Canterville Ghost was interspersed with the performers' own acts and stories, and even then, the bee was not entirely convinced of the necessity for two parallel plots.
To be sure, in the end, the storylines did reinforce one another, and their collective message was perhaps stronger and more hard-hitting than what each one could have achieved on its own. Still, the bee found itself scratching its head for most of the show wondering how each storyline was related to the other. The rationale for such a strange juxtaposition of narratives loomed over the audience like an elephant in the room.
Southwark Playhouse may have lost a couple of opportunities in The Canterville Ghost
The story of the ghost as depicted in the current production leaves out a few details from the original it takes after. This, along with the fact that the ghost's story could take up only half the total duration of the show (as the other half was needed to be set aside for the performing troupe's own tales), led to the overall sense that we were being rushed through Sir Simon de Canterville's saga. The show feels like a lost opportunity in terms of tapping the story's potential for humour, its depiction of the ghost's emotional turmoil, or its study of Virginia whose character was supposed to be 'different' from the others.
To be sure, The Canterville Ghost did see raucous laughter from the audience in the initial scenes showing how the Otis family moved into the haunted house and how Mr Otis gave the ghost a lubricating oil to take care of the squeaky haunting sounds caused by the ghost's chains.
However, Sir Simon de Canterville's subsequent attempts to spook the family felt flat and lacked the stimulation and excitability that one often expects in a spooky story. The family's counter-attempts to spook the ghost felt similarly forced.
Furthermore, Virginia’s transformation from a mischievous troublemaking teen to a compassionate and mature saviour felt rather jarring and abrupt, especially because the play had not taken the opportunity to study her character (or any character, really) with any depth. What's more, the play’s tone and intent seemed to change abruptly in the last scene as it went from being a spooky slapstick comedy to a rather serious (and somewhat pseudo-profound, in the bee’s humble opinion) treatise on life, death and love.
The design, lights, costumes and choreography were, for want of a better phrase, slightly rough around the edges. On one level, that worked quite well to set the scene and transport the audience two centuries into the past. But on another level, the crudeness of it all, although most likely deliberate, seemed to hinder the execution of the more tactile elements of the play, which is problematic when much of the play's humour comes from ludicrous kinesthetics (like the ghost tripping on things).
To give credit where it's due, these execution hiccups were more than compensated for by an excellent and extremely talented cast. The bee admired Katie Tranter's gesticulations as she took on her various roles (including a bit of audience-involving improvisation that can't have been easy), and it was particularly impressive how she, um, 'absorbed' the spirits she was trying to contact. Matt Jopling's ventriloquy was equal parts flawless and hilarious.
In all, the play made for a memorable and funny (albeit not especially spooky if you're looking for a good Halloween scare) evening.
Watched October 2022 at Southwark Playhouse.