Henry James’ Turn of the Screw is a famous ghost story, about a Governess sent to look after two children in a remote household. However, when strange figures begin to appear can she ever truly save them?
The set, expertly designed by Sara Perks, throws the audience off balance from the very start. As if we’re looking at an old portrait, the frame around the stage is tilted, meaning the action always looks a little unsettled. Unfortunately, the set doesn’t fulfil its earlier promise and little frights come from it. The prominently placed rocking horse acts as somewhat of a Chekov’s Gun and I part hoped it would randomly begin rocking at any moment… however this moment doesn’t come.
There are a few jumpy moments, the classic ‘ghost appears’ move hotly anticipated by shivering music and a sudden blackout, but this isn’t a particularly thrilling show. The acting is, at best, a little drab and teeters more towards a mad Governess making up ghost stories than anything else. It’s hard to really feel fully in the moment when the action skips about from past to present as the Governess retrospectively tells her story. It seems an odd device to use when the action itself would probably stand alone. Unfortunately the story itself probably needs to be told as a narrative book, rather than a play, as I imagine a lot of the eeriness and beauty of James’ language doesn’t translate effectively to the stage. Tim Luscombe has had a good go at adapting it, though, and it’s not the worst thriller I’ve seen.
Janet Dibley as the Governess is an odd choice. Her tone, mannerisms and general demeanour don’t change a jot between her 20-year-old character and her 50-year-old one. It means it feels like a very ‘acted’ performance rather than an authentic one. Maggie McCarthy, as Mrs Grose, is the opposite – with her down-to-earth character really adding to the piece.
Elliot Burton as ‘The Man’ gives possibly the creepiest performance I’ve ever seen. Quite whether every character he plays is meant to portray such depth of sinister creepiness is still to be decided. Whether he’s playing the Master of the house, a ghost or a little boy influenced (or not) influenced by a ghost, he manages to give off an utterly shudder-inducing vibe. His drawling voice and overly seductive expressions blend across all characters which, again, means there’s little light and shade. Quite why the Governess finds this little lad so lovable is beyond me.
Finally, to complete the cast is Amy Dunn as Mrs Conray. She’s fine in her role, and perhaps performs a little better in her child-like state, but ultimately she doesn’t stand out either way and I think this production needs a steady cast member to underpin the piece.
Overall, I’d describe the show as menacing in a tidy, clinical kind of way. It works well and there’s a lot to like about the show but my general feelings towards it are lukewarm.
Catch the show until 1st June at York Theatre Royal.