Pros: The representation of various bureaucratic figures from British society, and their dialogue with other characters, provided some good satirical laughs.
Cons: The dialogue from the ghost felt just that bit too silly at times.
During the first five minutes of the play the mood was high: festive music and lights had signalled it was the Christmas season, the darkness had pulled us into night-time, and a crowd of revellers spewing out of a smart front door had made it clear that this was the tail end of a pretty good party. The evening costumes were lovely to look at and they really set the period (early 50s/late 40s) well. The set design was similarly well done, with care and consideration shown to the look and feel of the post-war time in which the play was written. As an audience we were taken straight into the situation of the text, and I genuinely felt like we were outside in this scene – an achievement considering I was upstairs in an old pub in West Brompton.
Tension was high at this point, as was the sense of mystery which the darkness of night always brings. Having not seen the play before, I was keen to discover the secrets that lay hidden behind the rather grand front door before me. I was impressed by the adaptability of the set design, as we moved from outside the door to inside the house in a flash. Following this change of scene however, the mystery declined pretty quickly. We fast forward 7 years, the house is empty, and our main character is all alone, and, well, he’s dead.
From this point onwards the plot focuses on the local and national government’s struggle in dealing with the rather unusual entity of a ghost. This original mechanism for satirising the bureaucracy of British government was funny at times, however I thought it played too overwhelming a part in the narrative. Running alongside this satire was the far more interesting interrogative dialogue between the ghost and local paranormal enthusiast Miss Truscott, which explored the protagonist’s life and relationships. It was this type of characterisation that I wanted more of, and I think it was because this was limited that the ghost aspect felt well, silly.
As a playwright when you do something like cast a ghost you take a big risk: your audience has to accept something ridiculous; and only then can they examine without mockery the real themes and ideas of your play. For instance in Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit if you refuse to accept all the characters are dead and that they are in hell then you will never accept those characters as people. There’s a leap of faith, and sadly in The White Carnation I couldn’t make it. The comments from the ghost regarding his status didn’t feel funny, they felt silly. A lot of the lines felt weak, and dare I say amateurish. For this sort of mechanism to work there has to be credibility, and I think R. C. Sherriff just missed the mark. I wonder if, and am perfectly prepared to accept that, my tastes and expectations are different to those of Sherriff’s original audience. Potentially I’m not looking at this with the post-war eyes that I should, and there is subtle sophistication I can’t appreciate. As a writer myself maybe I’m focusing too much on the original text here…
Text aside the roles were all well cast and everyone was thoroughly charming. There was also a sweet innocence about the play that I liked, that was felt in both the way the characters carried themselves and the way they treated each other. The White Carnation is certainly good value for a bit of escapism to a different time in Britain’s history. I would also like to mention that the staff at the Finborough Theatre were all particularly lovely. Living in London, and the world, it really stands out when people are courteous and professional!
Author: R. C. Sherriff
Director: Knight Mantell
Booking Until: 21st December 2013.
Box Office: 0844 847 1652
Booking Link: http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/