Having never seen the 1990 movie version of Ghost – in its entirety at least – I was intrigued as to what I would make of the stage version, currently playing at the Piccadilly Theatre. Musicals based on films can be hit and miss, and are usually given a bad press for their poor production values, but Ghost is blessed with a strong and innovative storyline which is clearly told (director Matthew Warchus), with drama, romance and humour. It also strikes me as a ‘film musical’ that can’t otherwise be categorised – it’s not your typical all-singing, all-dancing film or juke-box musical. Ghost has both style and substance, and like the more acclaimed Broadway musical Next to Normal, it tells a quite serious story with a contemporary score (Dave Stuart and Glen Ballard, book by Bruce Joel Rubin) but in its own original way. This is no musical comedy, but it is one of those rare ‘blockbuster’ shows that offers an involving and emotional love story with both tears and laughter.   

The lives of young couple Sam (a banker) and Molly (an artist) are torn apart when they are mugged and Sam is shot and killed. Molly is bereft but supported by friend Carl, a colleague of Sam’s who introduced them initially. However, Sam still ‘exists’ in a kind of temporary afterworld and attempts to protect Molly, who is at risk from his former assasin, and enlists the help of Oda Mae Brown, a phoney psychic with a villainous past. The information she is able to relay to Molly initially puts her in danger, but eventually leads to Molly being able to learn the truth about Sam’s death and to say goodbye to him properly.

As Sam Wheat, Mark Evans emerges here as a strong actor, displaying the frustration and vulnerability of a man who is on borrowed time and trying to protect his lover. Having known him as a strong singer and dancer, Evans, who has just released a solo album, here really shows he can act, and why he is a West End star who is going places, and his ‘Unchained Melody’ is an early highlight in the show. Leading lady Siobhan Dillon proves that she was a worthy finalist in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s TV context for Maria in The Sound of Music too. As Molly, Dillon gives a really strong, charming performance as an easy-going artistic young lady who is very much in love with Sam, and struggles to cope with his sudden and violent death and to find justice. There is a wide eyed youthfulness and loveliness about her too which makes the audience care about her plight. Both lead actors have some great songs to show off their vocals, from Sam and Molly’s lovely celebratory opening number ‘Here Right Now’, full of hope and dreams, when they move into a flat in Brooklyn together to the tenderness and inevitable poignancy of the final climactic number ‘The Love Inside’. Original cast member Sharon D. Clarke revels in the part of Oda Mae,  appearing in a serious of brash and colourful outfits, has a gospel tinged voice that is ideal for her big numbers. Clarke brings much humour to the story too, as the phoney psychic thrown into a genuine out-of-this-world experience, struggling to cope with the demands Sam puts on her in his quest to protect Molly. However, Oda Mae’s two second act numbers, ‘Talkin’ ‘Bout a Miracle’ and ‘I’m Outta Here’, could be shortened to keep the focus more on Sam and Molly’s love story. Andrew Crabtree impresses too, as Carl, the couple’s maybe not-so-lovely friend, his outward innocence a little suspicious from the start.

In addition to some great performances from the lead performers, Ghost has some very impressive special effects (courtesy of illusionist Paul Kieve), featuring an underground train which characters jump on and off at high speed, Sam putting his hands through objects as he learns to pick things up in his new ‘ghost’-like state, as well as walking through a door. I did a double take too when Sam is shot and he is seen dying on the floor and as a ghost – at the same time. Ashley Wallen’s choreography is very inventive, especially in the company numbers reflecting the reality of life in New York – with some Bob Fosse inspired moves that are brought bang up to date. The opening ensemble number, ‘More’, is particularly effective as Rob Howell’s multi-purpose set widens out to reveal both the bright lights and the claustrophic atmosphere of New York at its busiest, with a moving pathway and video screens. Director Matthew Warchus’ chorus in this show are real people too – not streamlined thinnies like in so many musicals, but people of different shapes, sizes and ages (including still-young veteran ensemble member Darren Carnall who has caught the eye in a number of shows over the years from Chicago to Legally Blonde). Other supporting characters get their moment to shine too, from hospital ghost Ashley Knight’s Broadway turn in ‘Ball of Wax’, relieving the tension with a song and dance moment just after Sam’s death, to Jenny Fitzpatrick and Lisa Davina Phillip as Oda Mae’s two assistants.      

The Piccadilly Theatre, tucked away behind Piccadilly Circus, is a real jewel in London’s theatre crown, with grand royal boxes that almost look like part of a movie set, and a new piano bar for pre-show drinks available for pre-booking for ticket holders. It’s a shame there’s not much passing trade there, although the rebuilding work on the former Regent Palace building has finally been completed, with new shops opposite the theatre leading down to Piccadilly Circus. The theatre has been home to such classic shows as Mack and Mabel and Ragtime over the years, and Ghost, like those shows, is closing way before its time. Stars Mark Evans and Siobhan Dillon have done a lot of publicity work for the show since taking over, including releasing ‘Unchained Melody’ as a single. Original leads Richard Fleeshman and Caissie Levy are now playing in the Broadway production of Ghost in New York, though it’s difficult to believe that they could be any better than Evans and Dillon. In London, it is playing until 6 October, and will be replaced by Viva Forever, the new Spice Girls musical, a show that quite frankly fills me with dread. Ghost certainly deserves a longer West End run – it’s a rare example of a film musical that contains a good story innovatively told, that doesn’t depend on you seeing the film beforehand – and a story that you will certainly remember for a long time.