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Turn of the Screw

Tim Luscombe, adapted from the novella by Henry James
Dermot McLaughlin Productions with Mercury Theatre Colchester and Wolverhampton Grand Theatre
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
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For literary thrills, it’s hard to beat a well-crafted ghost story, and The Turn of the Screw (1898) is one of the finest ever written. Hailed by Oscar Wilde as “a most wonderful, lurid poisonous little tale”, Henry James’s literary shocker has had a seismic impact on supernatural fiction, influencing a range of works on page, stage and screen.

Apart from introducing a framing device in which the central protagonist tells her tragic story thirty years after the fact, adaptor Tim Luscombe remains faithful to James’s original novella. A young, inexperienced governess (Carli Norris) is hired by a wealthy bachelor to look after his young niece and nephew—Flora (Annabel Smith) and Miles (Michael Hanratty)—in his lavish country house, with the help of a well-meaning housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Maggie McCarthy).

Besotted with her young charges, the unnamed governess attends to her duties with diligence and enthusiasm. However, upon seeing an unknown man and woman on the country estate, she becomes convinced that the ghosts of two former employees—Miss Jessell and Peter Quint—have returned from beyond the grave

Eventually, the governess reaches the conclusion that young Flora and Miles have been possessed by these two spirits, and she resorts to drastic measures to free the children from their malign influence.

What makes The Turn of the Screw such an enduring work of gothic fiction is the ambiguous nature of the ghosts. Are the spectres real or just figments of the governess’s overactive imagination? This question is dramatised to great effect in The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961), an excellent film adaptation starring Deborah Kerr.

Unfortunately, Luscombe’s adaptation doesn’t manage to preserve this central ambiguity, which means that the production isn’t as chilling or compelling as it could have been.

Director Daniel Buckroyd manages to orchestrate some well-executed shocks, and there are a couple of genuinely creepy moments—the appearance of two shadows at the end of the first half, for instance, is genuinely unnerving. Too often, however, the production resorts to the loud bang tactics employed by films such as Paranormal Activity (2009). The production is also weakened by an intrusive and over-emphatic musical score.

Loud bangs and sinister music can, of course, be extremely effective—The Woman in Black is a prime example of this—but these techniques are also easily overused.

Carli Norris does a decent job of conveying the governess’s escalating anxiety, but doesn’t quite project the right level of fragility. Annabel Smith gives an energetic performance as eight-year-old Flora, but I found her ‘child-acting’ somewhat grating at times. Michael Hanratty is rather good as Miles, capturing the ten-year-old’s bravado and precocity, and Maggie McCarthy provides solid support as the dependable housekeeper.

Turn of the Screw benefits from an impressive set by Sara Perks, who also did excellent work on a recent adaptation of Brighton Rock. The action of the play unfolds beneath a slanted proscenium, which creates the right sense of menace, and the mansion is skilfully evoked through well-chosen props. Matt Leventhall’s lighting also injects some much-needed creepiness.

Turn of the Screw is a solid piece of work, but ultimately doesn’t get under your skin like The Woman in Black does.

Reviewer: James Ballands