Turn of the Screw/Malvern Theatres

THE Victorians were obsessed with the notion that the dearly departed walked the same paths as the living.

Henry James’ compelling account of innocent children being haunted and corrupted by the ghost world would certainly have captured the imagination of the late 1890s theatre-goer.

So add to this the then recently published writings of Sigmund Freud and it’s not hard to see what a potent mix this must have been.

However, the big question remains. Are we really scared in 2018 or is it the drama of a clever plot that holds our attention?

Probably the latter. There is, after all, a limit to how many discordant piano chords, scratchy violins and the tinkling of music boxes are capable of sending shivers down the collective spine.

And there would have been a time when silhouetted figures in top hats might indeed have sent us diving behind the back of the seat in front. But a lot has happened in the world of horror since Bela Lugosi last scowled at the camera.

That said, there is a very strong storyline running through this piece, which adaptor Tim Luscombe exploits right up to the Gothic hilt. And it’s this factor, plus the deft touches of lighting designer Matt Leventhall that keeps you on edge right from the start.

Carli Norris has the misfortune to be the newly appointed governess at Bly House, and she just about succeeds in managing the highly temperamental Mrs Grose (Maggie McCarthy), the amiable but mysterious Mrs Conray (Annabel Smith)  and The Man (Michael Hanratty), a chap who milks the period menace for all its worth.

But what is real and what is not? The recurring theme of this play is how imagination can play tricks on the mind, and it is this ever-present confusion that powers the whole thing along like a demented bat that can’t find its way back to the belfry.

All things Gothic routinely attract a flurry of lazy adjectives from reviewers, but they so often miss the point. Because there is indeed something else going on here, and so the best policy is to just let Henry James be your guide while you relax and stay firmly in your seat.

Turn of the Screw runs at Malvern until Saturday, March 31.

John Phillpott