The audience took their seats to watch The Carlton Players’ production of Henry James’ tale: The Turn of the Screw. Inside Birkenhead’s Little Theatre a chill hung in the air and the curtain covering the fire exit billowed out. It seemed that from the very beginning the phantoms of Bly were making their presence known.
Director Elaine Stewart wanted to create an ambiguous show exploring the horror and psychology of Henry James’ original novella. Having previously directed adaptions of Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Grey; she has a clear interest in late-nineteenth-century Gothic horror, and her passion for the genre shines through.
The Turn of the Screw tells the story of Miss Grey (Jade Franks) a governess who is employed by Mr Crimond (Gareth Griffiths) to care for his orphaned nephew Miles (Charlie Knowles) and niece Flora (Grace Bradley). The youngest of her family, Miss Grey is surprised and flattered to be put in charge of Mr Crimond’s summer house. Earning a generous salary, the only conditions are that she doesn’t contact Mr Crimond and that she doesn’t venture up into the locked tower. Miss Grey and the children flourish in their new life of domestic bliss.
Mrs Grose (Jill Breckon) completes the happy household and all seems to be perfect. But then Miss Grey starts seeing a strange man and woman around the house (Kevin Wallace and Vicky Lodge). After describing them to Mrs Grose it seems to be that they are Peter Quint and Miss Jessell, the former valet and governess, except both of them are dead.
Clever use of lighting and sound created a spooky atmosphere, which contrasted well with the bright summer rays shining through the house’s windows into The Little Theatre’s cosy interior. Ghosts and children hanging silently in doorways eavesdropping added to this spookiness.
Authentic costumes and set gave a sense of realism to the supernatural story: a subtle colour palette separating the living characters from the ghosts wandering the halls. Chalky make up created the ghostly complexions that stood out against the black clothing, while the living characters wore more colourful attire. As the story progressed and the ghosts became more problematic, Mrs Grose, Miss Grey and the children wore more touches of black as their very essence became tainted.
The desperation of the characters was palpable. Mr Crimond’s need to offload the care of the children, Mrs Grose’s and the children’s fear of Miss Grey’s increasingly erratic behaviour and, of course, Miss Grey’s ever more frantic claims of the grave danger the children faced from their dead carers.
Stigma around mental health was rife in the nineteenth century, as it is still today. However, during this period attitudes towards “madness” were beginning to change. Literature such as Jane Eyre and The Woman in White had caused people to question how people with mental illness were treated. Jane Eyre was in fact directly referenced in the play, Miss Grey’s initial explanation for the ghostly sightings being a shameful secret insane relative locked in the forbidden tower. Miss Grey’s own panic and self-disgust at the possibility of being mentally ill increases the ambiguity in the story. As her paranoia increases so do sightings of the ghosts.
Are they really there or are they a figment of her fevered imagination? Are the children too perfect? Are they keeping secrets from her? Does Mrs Grose know more than she’s letting on?
The clock is ticking, the screw is turning and the pressure is growing.
The play was an excellent study in perceptions of reality and reliability of witnesses. Jade Franks and Charlie Knowles gave stand out performances as Miss Grey and Miles. Vicky Lodge and Kevin Wallace also shone as the ghosts driving Miss Grey to the edge. The analysis of mental health stigma makes the issues of the story relevant to the modern audience. The darker elements bringing fear and discomfort to the bright summer days of the play’s setting, making this a wonderful evening of entertainment in The Little Theatre on a dark January night.