Those with no interest in Gothic theatrical hokum which seeks to titillate audiences and make them jump in their seats should look away now.
And those of a more nervous disposition might think about placing a plastic bag between their derrière and velveteen Almeida theatre bench.
This is the turn of Rebecca Lenkiewicz* at Henry James‘ ghost story; the famous novella which has inspired a slew of TV, opera and film versions and comes with no small amount of pedigree and a degree of baggage. Many will already know that The Turn of the Screw is not – as the title might suggest to the uninitiated – set in a prison wing’s shower block.
We feared that as it was at the sometimes po-faced Almeida this might take a more drily serious route, solely attending to the psychology of the tale and not seeking to amuse. We should have paid more attention to the clues as it credits an association with Hammer Theatre of Horror and an illusionist (rather controversially not Paul Kieve but Scott Penrose) – both signposts (for the Whingers at least) to the general direction of “entertainment”.
A governess (Anna Madeley – suitably governessy and suitably jittery) is employed to look after two young orphans by their largely uninvolved uncle (Susannah York’s son Orlando Wells). The previous governess died in mysterious circumstances.
The children Flora (possibly Lucy Morton, there are 3 alternating the role) and the recently-expelled-from-school-for-mysterious-reasons Miles (Laurence Belcher) are of course precociously bright but also see dead people. Or do they? The audience certainly see them. Soon the governess is seeing ghosts too or is she just going a bit bonkers?
If you don’t already know the story (and we have only the vaguest memories of The Innocents starring Deborah Kerr) we shall endeavour to give as little away as possible except to say that Gemma Jones flusters nicely as the doting housekeeper and that despite being enjoyably old-fashioned in its storytelling and endearingly creaky at times (this was a preview and will no doubt pick up the pace a little) we were sufficiently held by the tale and its attempts to put the willies up the audience.
At the interval Andrew revealed how delighted he was to hear audience members gasp and scream and was even more thrilled when Phil also let one rip during Act 2.
But then this is the Phil-of-the-nervous-disposition who jumped several times during the film version of The Woman in Black, despite having accidentally stumbled into a screening for the hard of hearing which even subtitled the sound effects (slightly ahead of the sound), thereby negating almost all the surprises.
But back to TTOTS which delivered an even more shocking moment when plates of mutton are eaten off laps, “How common” the Whingers mused (fortunately Andrew is unfamiliar with Phil’s TV dinners) but does emphasise that the governess – as Miles suggests – is only one governing job away from the workhouse, so presumably she’s bringing standards down to her own. The children’s parts are both very ably performed and their precocity provides plenty of amusing moments.
Tim Mitchell’s lighting plays its own very significant role and the lavishness of the revolving staging (design Peter McKintosh) which takes us through various interiors and exteriors of the mysterious and remote country estate, pulling out all the Gothic stops with projected bats, storms and real rain suggests they’re poking around for a transfer. It may not be the new The Woman in Black but it’s having a darn good try.
Despite lasting a nippy 2 hours 10 minutes director Lindsay Posner really should think about dropping the interval and running straight through to ratchet up the tension even more. Andrew awarded TTOTS (an almost appropriate acronym if you think about it) one of his highest accolades: “It kept me awake”.
Spooky special effects and discontented spirits may be too populist for a typical Almeida audience, but that’s probably why we enjoyed it. In the absence of plate-spinning, bung in some illusions and we’ll usually depart with our own spirits duly contented.
But then again we liked Ghost Stories, so what do we know? Mind you again, that ran and ran.
*The Whingers once accidentally spent a most enjoyable drunken evening in a bar with Ms Lenkiewicz who turned out to be a jolly good sport which was just as well.