CANTERVILLE MEETS VAUDEVILLE – on the road
Here’s a bit of fun to report, the last rich dregs of Christmas before theatrecat puts on a straight face and heads to Stratford. Last year Common Ground – the tiny community theatre company led by Julian Harries and director-composer Pat Whymark – gave us a blissful spoof murder mystery with silly wigs and Round-the-Horneish surrealism. This time they seize on Oscar Wilde’s short story The Canterville Ghost, in which an overconfident American diplomatic family rent a stately home and defy the resident ghost with a scornful “We come from a modern country!”
In the original, ironic comedy is mingled with romantic pathos. The ghost struggles to keep up the traditional bloodstain on the hall floor against the power of Pinkerton’s Patent Stain Remover, and is affronted when his rattling chains are met with a tranquilly helpful offer of Tammany’s Lubricant. But ultimately it is the innocent young daughter, Virginia, who by weeping for his ancient sins achieves him forgiveness and rest in the garden of death. As a child I adored the story: so given the irrepressible larkiness of this team, it was gratifying to hear the cast of six begin, solemnly straight and melodious, by harmonizing Wilde’s “When a golden girl can win / Prayer from out the lips of sin…”
Following this salute to the poignant stuff, however, they revert to their Kenneth-Horne-meets-panto mode, and when the young heroine eventually does shed a tear it is of another kind (blame the most unlikely performance of the Angel of Death you’ll see all winter) So, no Victorian mawkishness but rather an equally Victorian vaudeville treatment. There’s a puppet lapdog, a speaking portrait, a lot of witty props, a depressed posh raven and two barmily inventive unWildean interludes in which the Ghost reminisces about a cruise ship he went on or relates a complicated miniature epic involving the wicked showman Jeremiah Squanderbeef using a severed head as a coconut-shy until the headless highwayman Mad Jack McFlapjack reclaims it.
Its gusto and humour carry the day, even in a damp church-hall matinee where I caught the penultimate tour date. As the Ghost, Harries roams around in a magnificent Tudor outfit enunciating like Donald Sinden, and embroiders on Wilde’s jokes about the ghost’s ability to manifest in any form (“Henry Sawyer the poisoned Lawyer – Robert Rummer the Strangled Plumber” etc). The Americans are played note-perfect by Stefan Atkinson as Hiram, sweet-faced Lorna Garside as Virginia and an irresistibly over-the-top Alice Mottram as the wife prone to invented mid-West slang. Whymark’s songs offer pleasingly groansome lyrics like “He makes our lives unbearable, lucky we ain’t scare-able” . There are low jokes to get the younger audience members snorting, and cleverer ones like the Ghost’s worry about impersonating Satan because “he’s touchy about copyright”. Wilde would like that.
Tour concludes at Wolsey Studio, Ipswich 9-11 Jan
box office 07928 765153 http://www.commongroundtc.co.uk