Different people find different things scary, and there are very different approaches to making things scary within the horror/ supernatural genre. There’s out-and-out gorefests, and the productions that go for the visceral as well as the visual (Ghost Stories, The Soulless Ones), while there’s also the spooky, eerie, atmospherically charged productions – such as The Woman in Black – which creep up on the senses and shout BOO!
Tim Luscombe’s adaptation of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw (not sure why it drops the “The”) is definitely in the latter category, hoping to creep out its audience with glimpses, mournful sound effects, clever lighting and dialogue dripping with dread. And to a large extent, it succeeds, most of all as a chilling gothic thriller which may – or may not – have its supernatural side. Whether it does or not is up to the audience to decide!
A governess looking for work attends the house of Mrs Conray, who has advertised for help in bringing up her children. But after the formalities of the CV are out of the way, Mrs Conray insists on delving into the governess’s past, and the job interview slowly mutates into a vengeful interrogation. Because the governess has a dark secret in her professional past, from the very beginning of her career, and it’s a secret played out in flashback on stage so that the audience can see for itself whether the governess really should be left in charge of children – or whether dark forces still haunt her past!
It’s a juicy set-up, and although the production can be a little too talky at times, director Daniel Buckroyd punctuates the pace with blood-chilling moments of shock which rely a little too heavily on that old horror favourite, the jump-scare. There’s no denying that Matt Leventhall’s lighting and John Chambers’ sound design do most of the work in creating the frights on stage, but because there is an ambiguity around the supernatural aspect of the story, it’s harder for Buckroyd to translate the scares visually.
The main physical manifestation is the woman in black, thought to be Miss Jessel, another governess from the past who casts a long shadow. But there’s something frustratingly everyday about a Victorian lady in mourning dress and a black veil simply stepping onto stage one side, walking slowly across, and then stepping off the other side. It’s just a bit too “normal” to have an apparition simply walk on, and then walk off. A sudden appearance from the gloom through a crack of lightning would be more effective, and has been in other ghostly productions, but as it is, it looks just a little too much like an actress walking on and off stage. The unease is absent.
But the aforementioned scares provided by sound and light are highly effective if you can excuse their over-use, and the gentleman in the seat next to me certainly fell victim, spending much of his time in mid-air! A special mention for Leventhall’s work at the back of the stage, where silhouette and shadow are used highly effectively.
Sara Perks’s set reproduces a typical Victorian drawing room which doubles as a nursery, bedroom and even a lakeside, with a sprinkling of imagination. The wooden floorboards curl up at the back as if the floor of the house is being torn up as the secrets pour out, but the presence of a rocking horse – a stalwart of spooky Victorian literature – doesn’t quite fulfill expectations. Yes, it does move on its own, but not really when you expect or want it to.
The cast of four does an admirable job of playing seven different characters, with Michael Hanratty taking the lion’s share as the uncle of his orphaned wards Miles and Flora, as well as young Miles himself, and the ambiguous presence of Peter Quint. Hanratty is most successful at portraying the young and playful Miles, but occasionally struggles to grasp the requisite presence or stature for the ungodly Quint.
Carli Norris makes for a sympathetic, delightfully composed governess, ably slipping from a 50-year-old woman of experience to a version of the character 25 years younger. Annabel Smith is excellent as the scheming Mrs Conray, who may or may not be all that she says she is. Smith gives her a believably cruel streak, and also makes a good job of playing the young, squawky Flora, girlishly hitching up her skirts to indicate her youth. Playing the dependably traditional and god-fearing housekeeper Mrs Grose is Maggie McCarthy, a reassuring presence who perfectly captures what you want and need a god-fearing Victorian housekeeper to be. She’s canny casting.
Turn of the Screw is a story about obsession and perception. What one person sees might be real, or a concoction of the mind, but what happens in reality is the same whatever. The conclusion is dark and unsettling, if a little abrupt, and it really is up to the audience to decide whether everything the governess relates is real or not. When all is said and done, you must decide whether you would leave your children in the charge of this woman, who claims to see spirits and dark entities all around her when others claim not. Buckroyd’s production of this chilling classic is not as spooky as it could be, but remains a faithful and respectful adaptation which flicks the right switches and provides a fair few frights.
Performed at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, between May 1st-5th, 2018; returns to Wales at Cardiff’s New Theatre, May 22nd-26th.
Main image: Carli Norris