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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The White Carnation
Finborough Theatre    Winter 2013

R. C. Sherriff, best known for the First World War drama Journey's End, wrote this comic ghost story one World War later, and in its gentle way it is one of the funniest plays around today. 

On Christmas Eve 1951 a rich man sees some party guests to the front gate and then returns to find his home deserted and derelict. He'll soon learn that his house was actually hit by a German bomb seven years earlier, killing him and those guests that is to say, that he's a ghost and the party he just finished an annual haunting. 

After a bit of resistance he accepts the evidence of his post-living status, and after some original shock and fear the pre-dead people around him do too, though they now have to deal with the bureaucratic complications he raises. 

The Town Council was hoping to raze the ruined house to build some flats, the coroner has no precedent for annulling a death certificate issued seven years ago, the local pastor is not quite sure how to deal with a soul that is already departed, and the Home Office is inclined to consider him an illegal alien since he came back from wherever he was without a passport. 

As the man grows more comfortable in his new condition, he begins to lose patience with the dithering of the others and vacillates between expressing an Englishman's native outraged dignity and enjoying himself by toying with them. 

Sherriff wears his influences lightly, though you can see that the time travel idea owes a lot to J. B. Priestley and the comic treatment of the supernatural to the novelist F. Ansty and perhaps the American humorist Thorne Smith, while the jokes range from Cowardian epigrams to music hall gags. 

The various strands and styles blend together quite nicely, and only the attempt to inject some bittersweet sentimentality by having the dead man discover some unpleasant things about his behaviour when alive and giving him the opportunity to make up for it at the end seems pasted on from some other play. 

Director Knight Mantell and his cast are clearly more comfortable with the play's comic strands than with any serious issues or emotions it raises,and this production can be enjoyed most fully on that level, with an ample share of laugh-out-loud moments. 

As the dead man Aden Gillett is a bit stiff (Sorry about that) when both the comic and sentimental sides of the play want to see the character warming to the new experience, but he is adept with both witticism and wisecrack, his put-downs of the others providing much of the laughter. 

Daisy Boulton injects some warmth as a brave and helpful librarian and Joss Porter as a friendly policeman, while Benjamin Whitrow steals his scene as a slightly muddled but wiser-than-he-seems vicar and Philip York proves an ideal comic foil as the pompous man from the Home Office.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The White Carnation - Finborough Theatre  2013

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