R.C. Sherriff – author of Journey’s End, staple of the British school curriculum – wrote The White Carnation in 1953 as a star vehicle for Ralph Richardson. After 60 years in hibernation, it has been dusted off for the Finborough Theatre – and now Jermyn Street. Dusted-off, but dusty still.
Christmas Eve, 1944 and a doodlebug collides with a stockbroker, his wife and their guests. Seven years later, the stockbroker – a Mr Greenwood – returns, strangely unaware of the bomb or the passage of time, but sporting still the white buttonhole of seven years earlier. Greenwood is reluctant to accept his position, but he’s determined to make the best of it: “I’ve made a success of everything I’ve ever done, and I’m darn well going to make a success of being a ghost.”
Yet ghosts aren’t welcome in 1950s England and an assortment of doctors, lawyers and Home Office knights plan for his departure. Meanwhile, the puzzled Greenwood – who has no pulse, but looks quite all right otherwise – mulls over his predicament.
Alex Marker’s smart monochrome set revolves smoothly, and the play starts and finishes brightly. The bits in between are duller, but there are pleasant specks – none more so than Benjamin Whitrow (Mr Bennett in the BBC’s 1990s Pride and Prejudice) who was born to play a vicar.
The situation panders to light comedy – is this “ectoplasm” an illegal alien in the eyes of English law? – but also serious contemplation – what compels a spirit to return from eternity? The comedy – utter drivel that it is – works better than the contemplation. (Greenwood is back to make amends to his neglected wife, we gather, but the wife was blown up too, so why come back? None of it matters: all of it is unspeakably trite.)
Knight Mantell’s production isn’t desperately dynamic, but it is lucid and fairly fault-free. Michael Praed – the handsome, grey, laconic lead – sets the tone and pace of the night. He is serene, urbane, he takes his time. Stepping on stage in scene one, he sighs – and carries on sighing throughout the night. Here is a ghost who feels fed-up and an actor who looks bored by the ordeal of being on stage. I don’t blame him. Notwithstanding Sir Ralph’s elegant footling, The White Carnation must have felt worn-out in 1953. Sixty years on, the pulse has passed away.