The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman

Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

Mat Osman’s enthralling historical fantasy sweeps the reader into the London of 1601.

Shay, a girl of 15, leaps across precarious rooftops in her role as a messenger… It is a unique way to communicate and this heralds the spirit of this novel.

Shay lives with her failing father, a ferryman, in the marshes to the East of the city. Like her dead mother, she has a belief in the power of birds…’birds are gods: gods are birds’. Her rapport extends to Devana, a powerful falcon which she has raised from a fledgling.

Initially she is a prompt in a theatre at Blackfriars. Through her contact there, she meets the enigmatic young Nonesuch, as well as  Alouette, Trussell and Blank. They all possess special abilities and together the troupe perform famously successful entertainments, often devised by Nonesuch, who, only 15, possesses rare talent for acting and improvisation.

Such is the writing that it is impossible not to be caught up in the colour and excitement of all these activities.

The book is crowded with incident. Life in Elizabethan London erupts from the pages be it the squalor, the crowds, the desperation, the excess. Beauty and creativity exist side by side with fifth and abject poverty. Features of life then colour the drama: the crowded boats on the reeking Thames, cockfighting, the absolute power of privilege and the pursuits of the wealthy. Elizabeth herself is beset by doubt and the tenuous nature of her role as a queen.

Shay manages to remain untouched by this and, in her way, attempts to improve the lot of creatures at the mercy of circumstances there in 17th century London. She bravely tries to free the poor cocks who are conditioned to fight and cannot recognise the attraction of freedom.

The young players leave Blackfriars and form their Ghost Theatre. As Nonesuch says, that only in this theatre, lies the truth of words. Outside it, heroes die, the good suffer.

All goes well until the plague strikes. Countless numbers of Londoners flee to escape certain death and it is there in the countryside that the Ghost Theatre group encounters Cockaigne, and the ruthless Jagger. It is another travelling theatre group and life alters drastically.  Shay and her friends have to face threats and challenges for which their lives in London left them unprepared.

The book, as in a play, is divided into three acts, each devoted to a significant stage in the progress of the five players – the Blackfriars, the formation of the Ghost Theatre, the Aftermath .

In it, Mat Osman displays astonishing skill. The brilliance of the language is undisputed and some may allude to Dickens. However, although his sentences are vivid, they are not encumbered by length. Dickens exposed the inequalities and cruelty of life in Victorian London. Osman in his book shows how valued was the theatre to people, rich or poor. Entertainment and escape from harsh reality were rapturously welcomed. Shay and her singing made her a celebrity.

Fantasy is such an integral part of The Ghost Theatre chronicle; however it is utterly convincing because, like theatre itself, the experience dictates the temporary suspension of  an everyday banal existence. It transports us into a celebration of the imagination.

It is not surprising that the novel has attracted the highest praise from professional critics. Some have judged it a ‘book of that year’ yet there are many months to go!

I heartily endorse The Ghost Theatre. Like teeming London in the early 17th century, it bursts with excitement and a life fantastical. It was a joy to read.

The Ghost Theatre


by Mat Osman


ISBN 978 152665 441 0

$26.99; 303pp


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