I think it was about a minute into the extended fire scene – a two-minute sequence that saw the stage lights dim, an orange glow get projected onto the set’s back wall and a crackling sound effect get turned up – that I gave up trying to enjoy Sell A Door Theatre Company’s version of Ibsen’s Ghosts.
Ghosts follows the decent of Oswald Alving (Jason Langley), who is tarnished by his deceased father’s infidelity. When Helene (Deborah Blake) tells her son that her maid and his love interest, Regine Engstrand (Tamaryn Payne), is his half-sister, he loses his mind.
It’s a difficult play to put on, not least of all because it treats its subject – syphilis – as a metaphor for moral decay. Sexually transmitted diseases might have been scandalous in the 19th century, but better health care has cemented their status as nothing more than a nuisance today. And would you really choose to see a play about something acutely annoying? Thought not.
The most challenging thing about pulling off Ghosts is making its exceptionally long, melodramatic monologues believable. Unfortunately this isn’t something that this cast manage to do. Although Pastor Manders (Robert Gill) gave a few genuinely touching speeches (his reaction to hearing about Captain Alving’s infidelity is commendable, and his apology to Jacob Engstrand feels very honest), his monologues generally feel stilted and his intonation veers on contrived. Pastor Manders’ conversation with Helene about her family secrets is a good example of a longer dialogues that lack pace and would benefit from sharper, livelier direction.
Although the set is pretty, pairing a painted backdrop with a naturalistically styled living room, it would be nice to see the actors work on at least two levels. Most of the play’s longer monologues are delivered by stationary actors, which makes Ghost’s melodramatic language seem rather obsolete. The director could have made better use of a large set and made the actors move around more to inject some much-needed energy into the drier portions of dialogue.
This production of Ghosts feels underprepared, with too many jokes falling flat and cues getting missed. When the sound of footsteps only follows the line, “Now, listen: that’ll be Oswald coming down the stairs,” five seconds after its delivery, you know something’s wrong. It is sloppiness like this that detracts from this play’s otherwise good qualities, like Pastor Manders and Jacob Engstrands’ excellent Scottish accents, and thoughtful touches, like Pastor Manders’ umbrella being soggy when he comes in from the rain.
A few more rehearsal weeks and a more lively approach to direction could probably save this play. As it stands, however, it’s a bit too amateur to travel all the way to Greenwich for.