Fear and laughter often go hand-in-hand (you only have to look at work from the likes of Steve Pemberton & Reece Shearsmith to see that), so Tall Stories’ approach to the Oscar Wilde novella The Canterville Ghost is not as bizarre as it may first seem. Their vaudeville stage adaptation is currently playing at Southwark Playhouse, before heading to Bristol and Newcastle.
[Possible hints at spoilers ahead – go and see the show before reading on…]
The show is a mixture of music hall acts and the company’s retelling of The Canterville Ghost, with a pianist (Stephen Sublime, also chairman), illusionist (Thomas Artaud), psychic (Lorelei Diamond), and comedian (Matty Bristow). Billed as their “closing performance”, each performer takes their turn to showcase their specific talent and wow the audience – some of these skills are also put to use in the play itself. This sees the Otis family move in to Canterville Chase, despite being warned by the owner that it is haunted by the troublesome ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville; they are surprisingly unperturbed by the spirit’s presence, and actually seem to cause him more anxiety – whether it’s the children’s pranks or the father’s helpful products. But why is he still there – and why is this the company’s final show..?
I hadn’t read the novella prior to seeing the show, so naturally presumed that some of the sillier plot points (such as the twins buttering the staircase and the father offering Sir Simon oil for his chains) were the invention of Tall Stories, designed to ensure the whole production is as humorous as possible. This is not the case, however! Oscar Wilde’s novella laid all the groundwork as far as this is concerned, so writer/directors Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell have just run with it – and with hysterical results. Matt Jopling and Katie Tranter are a slick double act as the twin children (“spooky!”), Steve Watts has a great knack for presenting each of Mr Otis’ products as if he were in an advert, and Callum Patrick Hughes is hilarious as two put-upon residents of Canterville Chase: Sir Simon’s ghost and housekeeper Mrs Umney.
Rather than the Wilde story being the chilling part of the night, it is the story of the performers themselves that sends a bit of a shiver down the spine. I would love for this show to get a run in an older theatre at some point, as I think this setting would really enhance the spookiness when the penny finally drops – perhaps the Criterion would like another resident ghost this time next year..?
This extra dimension is definitely needed, as entertaining as the story would be on its own. The addition of Eddie Bristow alone would be enough to keep me entertained – a swearing puppet will never get old, and Jopling’s ventriloquy skills are very impressive. As is Hughes’ sleight of hand; magic continues to both wow and infuriate me, as I can never work out how it’s done. Beware of sitting near the front, unless you want to make a psychic connection with Lorelei… Tranter does exceptionally well in this role, taking the unpredictability of audience participation in her stride and doing great work as a (let’s face it) classic Victorian con artist. Watts is more the straight man of the company, accompanying their acts on piano, and his own moment in the spotlight is rather touching – hinting at the reveal to come.
Barney George’s design really captures the flavour of the era, and plays a key role in creating the mood & setting of the story – from Matty & Eddie’s matching outfits to Sir Simon’s various fancy dress costumes (also an idea taken from the novella). Having live music also really boosts the show, and Jon Fiber & Andy Shaw’s compositions are pitched at exactly the right level. Everything comes together perfectly to make a spooktacular treat, just in time for Hallowe’en.
My verdict? This vaudeville stage adaptation of the classic Oscar Wilde novella is wildly entertaining and a must for spooky season – you’d be ghoulish to miss out!