Review: Turn of the Screw @ Exeter Northcott

 Shocking and scary but nothing to scream about

Turn of the Screw is a play adapted from the 1898 Victorian novel by Henry James, aiming high in its ambition to deliver a thrilling Woman in Black-style experience, but ultimately falling short of its popular stage cousin.

Indeed, the Woman in Black film and play are derived from the character that also features in Turn of the Screw. Having seen Woman in Black a couple of years ago, I had high hopes that this stage adaptation would provide a similarly memorable experience. While the two plays have their similarities, there is a certain tameness in Turn of the Screw, meaning that the play may succeed more for first time viewers of this genre.

The plot features a governess who becomes consumed by reliving a former job where she became convinced that the two children in her care were being haunted. The two children, played by adults, switch between their adult and child selves which, while jarring at first, provides an enthusiastic contrast between scenes and emphasises the scarier aspects of the film. Nonetheless, it is noticeable that the overall acting is wooden and forced. The title character of the Governess, played by Janet Dibley, gives a stifled performance; I often found that lines were shouted at the audience rather than performed. Dibley also seemed to struggle with her lines, at more than one point there were repeated lines between characters, interruptions and requests for lines offstage. These opening night mistakes inevitably detract from the quality of the performance.

However, the set design can be praised. Warped and lopsided beams frame the stage, with a wood panelled floor featuring a crack with an orange glow cutting across the stage floor. A shattered wooden background and the bare and minimal furniture all contribute to the eerie atmosphere created the instant the play begins.

Atmosphere is perhaps the outstanding aspect of this production; those who are looking for a jump scare will not be disappointed. Two ghosts haunt the play, however, it is not the Woman in Black who is truly terrifying, but the male ghost played by Elliot Burton. Burton not only performs excellently as a dead butler but also in the roles of a playful child and as the creepily flirtatious uncle (collectively his characters are known as ‘The Man’). The Man‘s relationship with his sister and the governess enforce the strangeness of the child and his talent as an actor.

Story wise, the play very much feels like you are watching a Victorian novel come to life. Dialogue is lifted directly from the novel, and much of the story is fairly flatlined with occasional peaks of highly intense action that take you by surprise. These are ultimately what prevent the audience from becoming bored. It is perhaps the script that lets the performance down, as much of the interest and nuance from the film, that is inferred in the novel, is not explained here, and the play is rushed in the final act, finishing with an unsatisfying twist. Some liberties have been taken with this adaptation by Tim Luscombe, for instance the opening scene is a new addition that helps to ease the audience into the story. However, I do wonder if it would have been helpful to take further liberties elsewhere to avoid problems such as the ending and the difficult language of the play.

The high production value of Turn of the Screw provides an engaging setting that unfortunately juxtaposes the quality of some of the performances. The play does, however, remain entertaining in its tone and design.

George Eldridge 

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