Reginald Theatre, July 26


Jack Richardson, Kim Clifton and Lucy Locke. Photos: Phil Erbacher.

Fear turns to terror when our imaginations go to work upon the facts as Henry James understood so well. By not explaining the ghostly phenomena in The Turn of the Screw, he engaged his readers’ imaginations, and by keeping the ambiguities alive until the end, he made a little masterpiece that readers keep reading, academics keep interpreting and other artists keep adapting.

Writer/director Richard Hilliar is the latest to adapt the novella in this Tooth and Sinew production. In a program note, he speaks of embracing the story’s “utter commitment to ambiguity”, and he certainly does that in the first half, when the tension builds slowly, but inexorably. This is as the governess (Lucy Lock) comes to suspect that her young charges, Flora (Kim Clifton) and Miles (Jack Richardson), might be hiding something sinister from herself and the housekeeper, Mrs Grose (Martelle Hammer). In the second half, however, this commitment to ambiguity – essentially whether the ghosts are real or the governess’s hallucinations – unravels somewhat when some bouts of hysteria suggest the children might be possessed. Gulp.

Essentially Hilliar has taken James’ setting (a country house in 19th-century Essex), his mood (gothic) and his story-shape (suspenseful), and then fiddled with the precise incidents. Had he fiddled less in the finale, he would have done his play a favour.

Lucy Locke and Jack Richardson. Photos: Phil Erbacher.

Nonetheless, this is mostly a gripping piece of theatre. The first half flies by while one is still entranced by the nuances of the characters and performances. Initially Hilliar has Lock present a less formal incarnation of the governess as she accepts the job from the children’s uncle (Harry Reid), but the characterisation settles as she bonds with her charges, and forms a wary friendship with Mrs Grose. Clifton and Richardson – both adults – are entirely credible as the children, striking a balance between outward charm and inner secrecy. Hammer nails the bewildered Mrs Grose, her Essex accent unflinching in the face of events that might drive a woman to drink.

The performances’ quality is at least matched by the production values. Hamish Elliot’s wood-panelled set rises to meet a plant-like growth, just as the tiled floor gives way to grass and reeds at the downstage edge, as if Nature is reclaiming what was once her own. Ryan McDonald’s lighting compounds the creepiness, and Chrysoulla Markoulli’s music intensifies it still more.