A Man of Substance: The White Carnation at Jermyn Street Theatre

Sunday 9th February 2014, matinée

There we were writing about acting dynasties, and now we have a dynasty actor, Michael Praed, no less, starring in RC Sherriff’s play ‘The White Carnation’ at the Jermyn Street Theatre.  We can’t think of many professions where one minute you are being seen by millions of people in a primetime TV series, and the next (well nearly thirty years later), you’re in a 70 seat studio theatre in the heart of the West End.  We were intrigued to finally see him in the flesh, but it was RC Sherriff who was the main reason to revisit Jermyn Street on this occasion.  His classic play Journey’s End made a big impression when we saw it more than two years ago, not just because of the subject matter, but because of the quality of the writing, and the chance to see whether ‘The White Carnation’ was a hidden gem was too good to miss.

The scene is London in 1951. John Greenwood, a wealthy, self-made man, sees off his guests on Christmas Eve after a party, and while he is outside taking in the night air, a gust of wind slams the front door shut.  There is no response from his wife inside, so he breaks in through the window, and finding everything dark, he begins to come to terms with his true existence.  Although apparently made of flesh, he is a ghost, dead for seven years, and his house has been a ruin since it was struck by a flying bomb, killing everyone inside.  The plot explores some of the more unlikely facets of ghost folklore: we have the bureaucratic entanglements of property law as Greenwood tries to regain ownership of his house, which is due to be knocked down for a building project; there is the question of how to fill an eternity of time – he wants to read all the unread books in his library and make new discoveries, but hasn’t reckoned on the limited capacity of the human brain; the policeman who ‘discovered’ him wants to make a fortune by showing him off to the world; and of course there is interest from the church as well as the spiritualists – to which he flatly responds ‘I’m not interested – I don’t believe in spiritualism’.

The beauty of the play is in its refreshingly matter-of-fact approach.  Almost devoid of melodrama or sentimentality, this is a highly perceptive and thoughtful exploration of human mortality which exploits every opportunity for dry satirical humour as the great institutions of humanity try and fail to come to terms with a real-life ghost.  Greenwood couldn’t be more down-to-earth, and as a ghost he is all too human, soon abandoning his lofty books for his beloved ‘Financial Times’.  He believes in nothing but rationality and is full of optimism that he can re-make his life, but as he discovers, all the rationality in the world is useless without compassion.  He has some difficult lessons to learn about how his loved ones really saw him.  The play almost feels like a missing link, the pre-cursor to the absurdists and playwrights such as Pinter, subverting the naturalistic form to provoke deep questions and evoke the disturbingly dark psychology of a generation who survived two world wars, some of whom may well have seemed like ghosts when they returned to their former lives.

As Greenwood, Michael Praed delivers a tour-de-force of understatement.  He is the calm centre around which the farce plays out, surrounded by a procession of characters for whom his very existence is a problem.  He has an apparently effortless stage presence which draws the audience in.  He is supported by an excellent cast of eleven (how did they all manage to fit backstage at once, we ask ourselves?) Benjamin Whitrow gives a particularly delightful star turn as the vicar, the disarming dispenser of wisdom, some of it mildly heretical, some pure common sense (‘Well, I don’t think a catholic priest could exorcise the ghost of a man who was CofE’ he pronounces at one point).  Philip York and Robert Benfield are frighteningly believable as the Home Office official and coroner respectively, and Daisy Boulton brings a breath of fresh air as Lydia Truscott, the niece of one of the officials who is an amateur ghost enthusiast eager to test her theories on the real thing.

Knight Mantell has not just unearthed a hidden gem, but given it a good polish in this tiny venue, with clear and simple staging and a clever design by Alex Marker.  Though clearly of its time, this play is as fresh as the everlasting carnation which John Greenwood wears on his lapel – an apparent impossibility which is proof of his ghostly existence.

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