After watching the transfer production of The White Carnation at Jermyn Street, I had this sudden vision of what it was I had just seen: comfort theater. Do you want to see a show in which people don’t deal with really difficult issues, a show with an upbeat ending, a show in which most of the people are comic caricatures of actual human beings, a show with a fair amount of laughs that sends you home feeling warm and fuzzy? Well, The White Carnation is just the play for you. As the lights came up and I looked over the sea of well dressed, gray haired attendees at the first night of this show’s transfer from the Finborough, I felt that in no way was anyone wanting a night that would be mentally/emotionally/physically taxing.
And that’s exactly what The White Carnation delivers. It’s a ghost story, but a comedy; a comedy with a vicar (Benjamin Whitrow, spotless) making jokes about how wrong it would be for a Catholic to try to exorcise a ghost that had been Church of England when alive: a comedy in which civil servants (Phillip York, a bit heavy handed) and town councilmen go wild trying to figure out how law applies to the walking dead; a play in which a policeman (Thomas Richardson, really laying it on) feels free to try to convince someone he’s guarding that they should go into business together. It’s not really a farce, per se, but a play in which British stereotypes and British bureaucracy are given a platform to play freely and the audience is allowed to have a good laugh. I had actually been expecting something quite creepy and disturbing, like An Inspector Calls or The Woman in White, but instead I actually had quite a few good laughs (I know, finally a comedy that I actually enjoy, it had been ages!).
Now, I can’t fault the performance of Michael Praed as the lead character, John Greenwood – he seemed seamlessly to be what he was meant to be, a rich man who was very focused on money and a bit of a bully – but so many of the rest of the actors seemed so cardboardy. I couldn’t feel it was much their fault (as it was a transfer, I expect they were pretty settled in their roles) as it just seemed that it’s how they were written – Sherriff wasn’t intending on pushing his audience, he wanted to please them.
But, you know, The White Carnation did what it said on the tin, and I did managed to be both surprised and a little teary at the ending. You may not have seen it before, so I’ve tried to be obscure about the plot points; but if you want to be lightly entertained, this play (and production) will certainly deliver. Otherwise, for about the same price you can see a trio of Samuel Becket plays across the West End at the Duchess. (I preferred it but frankly I don’t want to have exotic small plates for dinner every night; sometimes a Sunday roast is really what the doctor ordered.)
(This review is for a performance that took place on February 5th. It continues through February 22nd.)