Review: The Turn of the Screw, Almeida Theatre

“It’s hard to do things that are interesting and keep your hands clean”

Horror is a notoriously difficult genre to get right in any format, not least because we all have different triggers that give us the heebie-jeebies. So to take on Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw feels like a bit of a brave choice by the Almeida theatre but from the outset, there are mixed signals as to the approach that has been taken. Lindsay Posner has commissioned a new adaptation of the tale from Rebecca Lenkiewicz but this is also a co-production with the Hammer Theatre of Horror, setting the scene for some interesting creative tension.

But that never really materialises as the ambiguity that frames the entirety of James’ tale of a governess appointed to look after a pair of orphans but finds them haunted by spirits past has been dispensed with. There’s much to be played with in the uncertainty as to whether the ghosts of the children’s’ former governess and her lover are really haunting these two moppets or whether it is the fevered imagination of the new woman in post whipping up the drama but Lenkiewicz leaves no such room for any subtleties from the get-go.

Anna Madeley plays the new employee, initially with a reserved stillness which soon crumbles in meeting the children’s’ uncle who wants nothing to do with them. (He’s played by Orlando Wells who 10 years ago I would have totally got but a dodgy moustache sadly making him far from the ‘Alex from As If’ figure of my T4-watching student days). But this woman has no such qualms and it is soon apparent that she is brimming with an untapped sexuality. This point is rammed home repeatedly though and there is little Madeley can do but gamely ratchet up the hysteria, leaving us in no doubt as to who has a screw loose.  

Peter McKintosh’s heavily gothic design makes full use of the Almeida’s revolve and there is excellent work from the stage management team in keeping up with the frequent and plentiful scene changes. But the short scenes and numerous transitions sucks much of the pace of the production, there’s a lot of waiting for the set to complete its turns which habitually dissipates the mood that has just been created. And one has to question Posner’s choice to insert an interval which is the same issue writ large, the cultivation of a truly mysterious atmosphere would benefit more from a relentless barrage of the unnerving.

Instead we get a succession of moments that make us jump: illusionist Scott Penrose’s visual ingenuity working with Gary Yershon’s sound design to keep several audience members on the edge of their seats in yelping fear. But there was little of the chilling, of the genuine scariness that ought to inhabit the telling of the tale. In terms of what gives me the shivers, the ominous tinkle of a music box was there but under-utilised and the image of the creepy Victorian girl ghost was somewhat undone by Emilia Jones’ performance as Flora (one of three girls alternating the role) who was all bright chirpiness.

As her brother Miles – 10 in the book – the 17 year old Laurence Belcher also fits a little oddly into the narrative, the burgeoning teenage sexuality he suggests would fit with Lenkiewicz’s sexualised take on the governess but the production is a little too coy from following this through to its natural conclusion. Only Gemma Jones’ housekeeper feels a natural fit in this world, a restrained presence who manages to maintain an air of mystery in a production that lacks a lot of restraint elsewhere. 

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 16th March

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