Actors playing other actors in another play taking place on the stage-within-a-stage tend to be problematic in the theatre. To be blunt about it, they’re not always credible (I except The Dresser and Noises Off). Add in the director of the play within a play materialising from somewhere in the stalls, not to mention loud interjections from the auditorium of both the fictional and actual theatres, and you can have a thoroughly unsettled audience before any plot starts to reveal itself.
The plot in the case of House of Ghosts involves the cerebral detective Morse, central character in Colin Dexter’s novels and the television series based on them. Some of these television episodes were written by Alma Cullen, who has devised a story in which the Morse of 1987 is confronted with people from his undergraduate days some 20 years previously. One student thespian has become a high-flying Catholic priest; another is a once-renowned theatre director looking for a come-back; a third is now a professor in her old college.
It’s all starts when a rehearsal of Hamlet is disrupted, first by one of those interventions from the auditorium and then by the death of the young actress playing Ophelia. Her prince has an addiction to mind-altering substances, the Gertrude is desperate to be kept on in the role and the stage manager is as much concerned with encouraging young men to “come out” as he is to keep the show on the stage and on the road.
Paul Wills has devised a simple set of arches which works for the rapid succession of scene changes – on stage at an Oxford theatre, outside the stage door, in a church, a pub, Morse’s office or the professor’s rooms. There are a great number of these scene changes and concentration does slack between them, especially as several cast members would have done well to have heeded their on-stage director’s fulminations against mumbling.
As Morse, Colin Baker is an engaging lead, perhaps just a little cosy even when rounding on the people important in his past and vital to his present and future. Lynette Edwards makes Ellen Underwood credible as an academic and Gay Soper is sympathetic as Verity Carr. There’s authority in Paul Clarkson’s Mgr Kincaid and (albeit of a different sort) in David Acton’s Lawrence Baxter. I’m not sure if I would personally have cast Gregory Finnegan’s Justin Harris as Hamlet but I could believe in Rachel Logan’s eager-for-fame Rebecca Downey (who has been chosen to play Ophelia).
The director is Robin Herford. These performances mark the start of a national tour which continues for the next four months and the production may well have tidied itself up by the time it reaches your own local theatre. At the moment it seems to straddle staged and filmed conventions in a slightly uncomfortable compromise.