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Pretty phantasms: Ghost at the New Wimbledon Theatre (**)

I missed the critically derided, yet much loved musical version of the iconic Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore supernatural romance Ghost when it was on the West End, but luckily the flocking audiences have convinced the producers that a tour is in order – currently at the New Wimbledon Theatre, but probably shortly at a Theatre Royal near you.

What can be said about Ghost that hasn’t been said already? I’m very much Johnny-come-lately to the critical chopping board here, and most of the choice cuts have already been decisively made. Yes, it’s mawkish, and the only song that sticks in your mind is the one from the film, but I was almost expecting that: what I travelled to the Wimbledon leg of the current tour to see are the impressive special effects.

Which nearly didn’t happen – I suppose it’s not surprising that a show so tech-heavy would have trouble getting on the road: the reports out of the opening show in Cardiff were not promising! But the night I saw everything seemed to go off without a hitch – and, my goodness, it’s impressive.

But before we get to that, in case you’re also new to the party: Ghost is the story of Sam Wheat, honest banker and loving boyfriend, resigned to existence as a ghost after being murdered in a random street mugging – or was it? With the help of not-so-fraudulent street psychic Oda Mae Brown, Sam is on a mission to rescue his girlfriend Molly, but can he really save her from beyond the grave?

This Hollywood blockbuster, starring Patrick Swayze as the titular ghost of Sam, Whoopi Goldberg as Oda Mae and Demi Moore as Molly, was turned into a musical in 2011, which started in Manchester before transferring to the West End. Surviving a critical mauling (maybe not as harsh as the Viva Forever backlash, but certainly pretty brutal), high audience numbers transferred the show to Broadway, and it’s now touring the UK.

I’d been rather intrigued to see Ghost for some time: having dabbled in magic, and hearing that the effects are pretty impressive, I was dying to see this show more from the perspective of what stage technology has got to over being desperate to see the musical – which is probably for the best. The song and dance here is nothing special: not tragic (the choreography, in particular, is very original – lots of jagged shapes and stop/starting), but nothing to write home about. The songs are anodyne and forgettable, bar “Unchained Melody”, but that’s become so synonymous with the film that it could hardly not have been the centrepiece musically.

Luckily, the performances are strong: Wendy Mae Brown’s Oda Mae is hideously marred in 80s/90s black stereotypes, and is really channelling Whoopi, but her role is such good fun that both of those are forgiveable. David Roberts and Rebecca Trehearn struggle with striding around menacingly and moping around folornly, respectively, as Carl and Molly. But this is Sam’s show, and it’s great to see Stewart Clarke (who impressed so in Loserville) get a chance to flex his muscles – quite literally, on occasion.

But on to the effects – and they are certainly brilliant. It’s a wonderful combination of the deceptively simple (Sam has a blue followspot at all times – just enough to make him appear otherworldly) and the technically extravagant, including a real man disappearing through a solid door (!!). The panelled set is all made up of various screens or gauze being projected onto, allowing for a huge number of moments, including the thrilling and excellently staged and choreographed subway sequence – just amazing.

No, it doesn’t make up for the musical, often times being used far too extravagantly to cover scenes that just don’t work live (ie. one exceptionally misjudged sex scene that resembles a perfume commercial), but it is spectacular – and, for that reason alone, should be seen by anyone interested in what technology and theatre can do together. Besides, the enduring cultural impact of the film seems to continue – despite all of the negative press, the show I saw had a packed house, and I imagine it’ll be the same all over the country. So go on, treat the missus, and I dare you not to be slightly moved.


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