Having not encountered Turn of the Screw before, whether the original short story or one of the numerous screen adaptations it has inspired, I had no preconceptions about what to expect as I headed to Oxford Playhouse to see this new version. The dark images on the posters for the play signalled that I should prepare to be spooked by this show, and like many, I wondered how this would effectively be achieved in a play.
On shocks and jumps, this show did not disappoint: there were several moments where I almost jumped out of my seat. This was achieved with a clever combination of the atmospheric set (featuring, amongst other delights, a rocking horse which rocked by itself) and perfectly-timed shifts in the lighting. These coupled with music that was eerie even during the lighter moments and sudden in all the right places, ensuring that the production drew us in to the gothic world of Henry James' novella.
Tim Luscombe's script is written in a way that makes the action of this 120-year-old story easy for anyone to follow: a governess (a formidable Janet Dibley) attends an interview for a new position and quickly discovers that her would-be employer is in fact Flora (Amy Dunn), whom she looked after 20 years before, and has trapped her to get at the truth of the strange and ultimately tragic events of their shared past. This all transpires in the opening moments, quickly establishing a breathtaking tension which is maintained throughout the show, right up until its highly climactic conclusion. The audience's sympathies are initially with the governess: we share her alarm at this trap, but as the action unfolds, matters become unsettlingly ambiguous.
This ambiguity is used to maximum effect by director Daniel Buckroyd, chiefly through ingenious casting choices that have the versatile cast playing several roles. The cast prove hugely talented in their ability to portray a number of characters, with Dunn and Dibley convincingly inhabiting their characters' younger selves, while Elliot Burton's movements evoke the childish energy of a charming boy, the slimy charm of his absent uncle and the menacing figure of Peter Quint. The fluidity heightens the sense that our narrator is unreliable and all is not as it seems. A particularly effective call back showed a semi-incestuous interaction, solidifying the governess' conviction that the children are not as innocent as everyone believes them to be, later revealed as a play rehearsal. Further moments of relief were provided by a more comic turn from Maggie McCarthy's straightforward Mrs Grose.
The all-encompassing drama convincingly transformed the Playhouse's auditorium into a haunted house, over a fun evening which highlighted why the spooky source material has enjoyed continued popularity for over a century.