Adaptor: Tim Luscombe
Director: Daniel Buckroyd
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
A great deal of mileage has been found in Henry James’ 1898 novella Turn of the Screw. It has spawned a Benjamin Britten opera, Jack Clayton’s 1961 film (The Innocents), not to mention television versions, and now Tim Luscombe has adapted it into a stage play for this handsomely-mounted touring production.
The plot is simple. A young governess (Carli Norris) is hired by the distant guardian (Michael Hanratty) of two young children, Flora and Miles, to take care of them in his country house, giving explicit instructions that he is never to be troubled regarding any matters affecting them. With only the doughty housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Maggie McCarthy) to help her, the governess soon discovers that the children are deeply troubled. Miles has been expelled from school for unexplained reasons and both appear to be obsessed with, or perhaps possessed by the ghosts of a former valet and the previous governess, who had each died in mysterious circumstances.
By framing his play inside the recollections of the governess some 30 years later, Luscombe distinguishes his version from some others, but reverts to a structure that is similar to James’ original work. Here the governess is challenged by the adult Flora (Annabel Smith) to explain what had happened and the audience is invited to question the veracity of her account. Thus, a story that is always enigmatic becomes more so. Are the malign forces at work paranormal or of human making? Is it the children who are possessed by ghosts or is it actually the governess?
Sara Perks’ set design and Matt Leventhall’s lighting give the production its vital creepiness. A single child’s bed and a large rocking horse occupy centre stage and, behind them, projected images occasionally emerge through the darkness. What we need to see is illuminated brightly, but the rest of the stage is a pitch black expanse in which we fear evil could be lurking. For the most part, director Daniel Buckroyd seems to take the point that suggestion is far more powerful than overstatement in the telling of ghost stories, but, occasionally, he betrays this principle with sudden flashes and loud bangs that are designed more to make us jump than to really scare us, thereby taking his production dangerously close to Victorian melodrama.
The roles of Flora and Miles are played by adult actors (Smith and Hanratty), assuming children’s speech, movement and mannerisms. This diminishes the impact of essential ingredients in James’ original – childhood innocence and the corruption thereof. The problem manifests itself most strikingly in a disappointingly limp staging of the climactic scene which fails to generate the sense of horror that it undoubtedly should. That aside, Luscombe’s play is a worthy addition to the list of theatrical ghost stories and it should have lovers of the hugely successful Woman in Black queuing for tickets.
Runs until 17th March 2018 | Image: Robert Workman