Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Theatre review: The White Carnation

Not actually a play about evaporated milk, The White Carnation sees the Finborough Theatre find another seasonally-appropriate show from the archives - this time a Christmas ghost story. Although we're not really in for thrills and chills here because the ghost is the central character, and his behaviour is resolutely non-spooky. John Greenwood was a wealthy stockbroker, killed along with his wife and friends by a German bomb during a Christmas Eve party. For the next six years the ruins of his townhouse are haunted by the party being played out again every December 24th, but on the seventh year they don't all disappear at midnight: Greenwood (Aden Gillett) is left behind, believing no time to have passed, and wondering why the police are accusing him of breaking into his own house. He still has a physical body but like the flower in his buttonhole he doesn't age, and he doesn't show up in photos.

R. C. Sherriff is best known for the definitive World War I trench drama Journey's End so this particular rediscovery is a change of pace, an amiably bonkers comedy-drama about a man who returns from the dead only to get mired in red tape - from the coroner to the Home Office, everyone just seems terribly inconvenienced by the fact that a corporeal ghost is hanging around a ruin they were hoping to knock down to build flats.

The White Carnation isn't a laugh a minute but it's gentle fun with a few really good comic scenes; Greenwood's unprecedented status is a headache for the lawyers trying to figure out who now owns his former property, and for the Home Office who don't have an ambassador from the place he's just come back from; although the most fun is had with an amiable vicar (Benjamin Whitrow) getting offended at the thought of a Catholic priest trying to exorcise a CofE ghost.

Gillen makes for a particularly no-nonsense ghost, although his gruff delivery does sometimes result in some mumbled lines. Greenwood only really softens around Daisy Boulton's Lydia, a young woman he's attracted to but who leads him to understand that he may be back on earth in order to reconsider his contempt for his dead wife (Lynette Edwards,) and be ready to face her with a new respect when he returns to the afterlife. Over the months he also grows fond of the policeman who first discovered him (an endearing Joss Porter) and who's keen to find a way to make money for them both out of the supernatural return.

Sherriff's writing detours a bit too much in the second act - a further setpiece revealing how the various government departments have tried to dump responsibility for the ghost on to each other is fun, but at that late stage of the play I felt it got in the way of the narrative. As a result Greenwood's whole journey to understanding his faults while he was alive is chronically underdeveloped, and the resolution feels undeserved. With a large cast and clearly written for a larger stage, it's not entirely surprising if The White Carnation wasn't quite an enduring hit, and has lain unproduced for 60 years. But the Finborough are experts at turning these failed blockbusters into successful intimate shows and Knight Mantell's production proves a quirky hit.

The White Carnation by R. C. Sherriff is booking until the 21st of December at the Finborough Theatre (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

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