Friday, 25 January 2013

Theatre review: The Turn of the Screw

Theatre rarely attempts horror, but when it does it can be a profitable experiment, as The Woman in Black and Ghost Stories proved. Latest to give it a go is the Almeida, teaming up with horror movie legends Hammer, who are launching a live performance arm. Rebecca Lenkiewicz adapts The Turn of the Screw, Henry James' endlessly popular ghost story, more commonly seen on stage as an opera.

An unnamed Governess (Anna Madeley) is hired by the distant Mr Sackville (Orlando Wells) to care for his orphaned niece and nephew, on the understanding that she never contacts him should anything go wrong. Which, of course, it immediately does - she forms an instant affection for Miles and Flora, but is just as quickly convinced they are in grave supernatural danger from the ghosts of their former governess and her lover.

Although for the most part a straightforward retelling, Lenkiewicz' take is to make it more overtly a story about repressed sexuality - not just that of Miles whose expulsion from school seems to be connected to him talking about things they certainly didn't teach him there, and who develops some very teenaged feelings for his new governess, but also hers: The character probably wouldn't have been far out of her teens herself, and is suggested to be having some not-very-Victorian thoughts of her own. The ghosts of Quint (Eoin Geoghegan) and Miss Jessel (Caroline Bartleet) represent a much more unrestrained sexuality, and it's in these hints that this is the real conflict that the production is at its most interesting.

The show requires a lot of its younger stars and has been well-cast in this respect: Miles (Laurence Belcher, who played Michael Gambon's character as a child in the Christmas Carol episode of Doctor Who - funnily enough this year's Doctor Who Christmas special more obliquely referenced The Turn of the Screw) and Flora (Lucy Morton, alternating the role with Isabella Blake Thomas and Emilia Jones) are on stage for huge chunks of the play and are required to be hugely enigmatic characters. Actually this does lead to one of the biggest problems with the play, which comes directly from the source material: The way the story plays out has the feel of a double cross, so that when the twist actually fails to come the abrupt ending falls flat - it's ironic that of all the stories not to have a surprise twist, it's one with this title.

Peter McKintosh's set is built around a large revolve with a central wall full of sliding panels and hidden corridors that makes for a solid-feeling big spooky house and of course facilitates surprises being set up around the stage to make the audience jump. There's some very nicely-designed magic tricks and lighting effects to create the ghosts, but I didn't feel as if Lindsay Posner's production made the best use of them in creating the promised scares. There's a couple of jumps but the atmosphere's not built up enough to create genuine chills - one particularly odd choice is the interval placement which comes just as the tension's been successfully built up, instantly releasing it. Playing it straight through, which the Almeida doesn't seem to have a problem with, might have been better - it would have come in a little under two hours, which is on the long side but doable.

It's a shame that Lenkiewicz didn't take the way she brought out some of the story's subtext as a starting point for being bit more liberal with the story itself; I feel like the element of suppressed sexuality could have been woven more coherently into the conclusion, or even more sweeping changes made to the denouement. It's also a shame that the wonderful Gemma Jones is rather wasted as the housekeeper. But The Turn of the Screw isn't ultimately a bad show. It doesn't bring the necessary chills down the spine but it's fun and the evening races by. But a combination of the source material and Posner's production never quite ratcheting the tension up enough leaves it a bit underwhelming.

The Turn of the Screw by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, based on the novella by Henry James, is booking until the 16th of March at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including interval.

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