The White Carnation at the Finborough Theatre
R.C. Sherriff is not known for much beyond his 1928 magnum opus Journey’s End, but the Finborough Theatre has here unearthed a play that not only matches its heartfelt portrayal of war yet also exceeds it in terms of writing and allegory. It is almost shameful that such a well written play has not been performed since its premiere in 1953.
The story begins with John Greenwood (Aden Gillett) – a wealthy stockbroker living in North London suburbia during the Second World War – hosting a Christmas Eve party with his wife. When the party ends, he walks his guests down to the front gate to say his farewells, but upon returning to the house finds that he is locked out. As his wife does not respond to his pleas to let him back in, he smashes a window and climbs through it, only to be confronted by a young police constable (Joss Porter) who informs him that the house has in fact been derelict for the last seven years.
Greenwood is revealed to be a ghost – yet he is physically solid and enjoying his return to earth. He does not want to leave, interacting with the various authorities who come to his erstwhile house to assist him. The White Carnation portrays wartime and post-war Britain in a humorous yet delicate way and deals with innumerable subjects such as marriage, “Englishness”, bureaucracy, isolationism, mortality and existentialism. Sherriff gently subverts the blimpish English of the time by showing them to be more concerned with the legality of Greenwood’s presence rather than amazed at his supernatural visitation.
The play, though steeped in subtext and metaphor, has an ultimately simple story and is funny and brilliantly constructed, though also extremely sad at times. Aside from the obvious comparisons with A Christmas Carol, Powell and Pressburger’s films A Canterbury Tale and A Matter of Life and Death also seem to be very strong influences.
The period is beautifully rendered by a cast that is almost as big as the audience – with a masterful performance by Gillett. Benjamin Whitrow playing the vicar Mr Pendlebury, and Daisy Boulton playing the spectral loving librarian Lydia Truscott, also deserve special praise. Sherriff’s soft jingoism may be out of fashion today, but this play is an understated masterpiece. It has deservedly been unearthed in this absolutely wonderful production.
Guy de Vito
The White Carnation is on at the Finborough Theatre until 21st December 2013. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.