Threatre: Wilde's wit falls victim to a singing spectre

The Canterville Ghost, Northcott Theatre, Exeter

OSCAR WILDE'S whimsical short story has survived a film, with Charles Laughton mugging for dear life, but even when filled out with the telling of Wilde's children stories, The Happy Price, there is hardly enough substance for a musical. This is not the Wilde of the scathing wit. Just light humour with a touch of sentiment.

It may have been the presence of musicians in the orchestra pit, or the baronial hall set, but I had the impression that we were in for a 1920's style musical comedy. The Canterville Ghost proves to be a bit more substantial than that; although the songs seem to spring out of nowhere in the musical comedy tradition.

A story of how an American family invade a stately home dates from the time when Americans wore check suits and big cigars, made vast fortunes from the invention of gadgets, and were loud and brash and supremely insensitive to British traditions and culture. Hiram Otis and Lucretia Otis, with their brattish boy twins and deep feeling young daughter, help to release The Canterville Ghost from 400 years of frightening molecules. The Otis tribe exorcise the ghost by simply not believing in him. According to an ancient rhyme the ghost can only be released from his purgatory by a young girl's tears. Step forward Virginia, the youngest Otis, imbued with a strong streak of sentimentally for helpless aberrations. There are some good songs. "A Ray of Light", sung by ghost Ron Moody, has the endearing battle through optimism of a popular tear-stained ballet, and Charles Miller's music has a lyrical lilt which lasts throughout. Peter Quilter's script sticks slavishly to the original. Only his song lyrics add anything new. The Canterville Ghost has some period charm but is essentially light-weight. There are times when Ron Moody's predicament engages the audience. His considerable stage presence carries the show beyond its expectations. The Otis family, Steven Wickham, Corinna Powlasand, the twins Gavin Eaton and Jamie Golding, and Sheli Andrew as the catalyst juvenile go through their routines efficiently. Nicola Sloane, the doomy house-keeper, has a few numbers in the Ivor Novello mould.

The production, by Brian De Savo, is full of thumps and flashes and a couple of stage illusions - the big finish when the Ghost ascends a staircase into the clouds sent the audience away happy.

The Canterville Ghost runs until the 23rd May.

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