An unscary ghost, an ancient aristocratic home, and an American family of ‘simple Republican values’ with 50,000 shares in the Colgate company – a combination that conspires into Oscar Wilde’s first novella, ‘The Canterville Ghost’, a melodramatic comedy about two worlds colliding: the deep-rooted stuffiness of the British land-owning gentry and the emergent American capitalist class with a disregard for history and fervent love of all things money.  In the hands of Magpie Theatre, it becomes a hilarious production for all the family, one which had my eight year old in fits of laughter throughout, and an interesting setting in the Casa Theatre for a story that was originally published in upper class journal The Court and Society Review in 1887.

The Canterville estate is a millstone around Lord Canterville’s neck, a haunted relic that he offloads onto the Otis family, American shareholders with a strong distrust of the landed gentry but a fondness for the musty old estate.  However, there are already a couple of residents in situ – Mrs Umney, the housekeeper, ‘not at all prone to fainting and bouts of hysteria’ and Sir Simon of Canterville, a ghost with a love of theatre who once performed in Shakespeare’s Globe, murdered his wife and ended up starving to death in the basement at the hands of her brothers, and who (despite best efforts) is unable to strike any terror at all into the hearts of the Otis family. They offer him lubricant for his chains and cheerily clean up the bloodstain of his dead wife with detergent from one of the companies they hold shares in, undaunted by his ghostly demeanour.

Instead of scaring the newcomers, he is terrorised mercilessly by their twin daughters ‘Stars’ and ‘Stripes’ (played by Ella Rose Norridge and Shannon Flynn) although eldest sister Virginia (Immi Wignall) takes pity on the Canterville ghost and tries to protect him from her family.  Virginia has her own issues, however – she wants to marry the Duke of Cheshire, fresh out of Eton and turning up in a suitably plummy suit to whisk her away, but her parents object to her marrying nobility and set her up with an American businessman who works for JP Morgan.  Virginia is horrified and somewhat melancholy as she struggles to reconcile these two discordant worlds.

A play which pokes fun at the upper classes and the clashes playing out during the Victorian era between the remains of the feudal nobility and the burgeoning moneyed capitalist class, it is interesting to note that there is only one working-class figure in the whole story: Mrs. Umney, the housekeeper, who is also the most lampooned of all the characters – silly, irrational and ultimately obsequious, merely tolerated by both the Canterville and Otis families, she flits about swooning and hyperventilating, fundamentally unquestioning of her lot.

The two comic leads, George Parsons as the Canterville ghost and Angela Michelle Lili as Mrs Umney were absolutely hilarious, and with the rest of the cast, including Alex Webber-Date as Mr Otis, Solenna le Goff as Mrs Otis, Cameron Steel as the Duke and Noah Ottman in multiple roles, brought together a production that was in parts extremely funny and also particularly interesting in its timeliness, exploring tensions within the ruling classes that play out to this day.  George Parsons really owned the role of the ghost, carrying off a few fairly lengthy soliloquies as amusing and gloriously melodramatic as they were poignant and thought-provoking.

 All in all, Magpie Theatre’s The Canterville Ghost offered an excellent rendition of an interesting Oscar Wilde yarn – a well produced piece of family theatre in a truly great setting, and perhaps a reminder of how differently the world can look depending on your position in it.  My eight year old skipped out at the end, having thoroughly enjoyed himself, full of enthusiasm for the theatre and with a million and one questions about what he had just witnessed – a fantastic family-friendly production that both entertains and challenges: what more could you ask for from a Monday night on Hope Street? 

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Images Courtesy of George Trier and Magpie Theatre


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