Turn of the Screw – Review – York Theatre Royal

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By Karl Hornsey, May 2019

It’s more than 120 years since Henry James’ novella Turn of the Screw was first published, yet it still holds a fascination to this day, dividing critics as to its meaning and it’s not hard to see why. The latest adaptation of the work comes from Dermot McLaughlin, is directed by Daniel Buckroyd, and has been touring since the end of March.

The Gothic nature of the novella is helped in this stage production by only having four actors involved, the lead of them, in the role of The Governess, taken by Janet Dibley, who came to fame in The Two of Us and has gone on to star in both EastEnders and Coronation Street. The other roles of, respectively, Mrs Conray, Mrs Grose and The Man, are played by Amy Dunn, Maggie McCarthy and Elliot Burton, with Dunn and Barton also playing the children at the heart of the story, Flora and Miles.

turn of the screw review york theatre royal may 2019 henry james

“Challenging and complex”

However, it’s the two characters that don’t appear on stage that are at least as interesting as those that do. The ghostly apparitions of former household employees Miss Jessel and Mr Quint have offered up many theories and summations in the past as to the true meaning of James’ story, all of which is purely conjecture and will never truly be confirmed.

Dibley in her role as The Governess also effectively narrates the story, which by its very nature is heavy on dialogue, with just the one stage setting and a few things that go bump in the night to keep the audience on edge. She manages to get across the naivety of her younger self in flashbacks of her first taking on the job at a country estate looking after Flora and Miles, as well as the confused character 30 years later who is forced to confront what happened in the dim and distant past. As well as carrying this off, Dibley is on stage for almost every second of the production, in a hugely challenging and complex role.

turn of the screw review york theatre royal may 2019 elliott

“Faithful adaptation”

The audience is gradually drawn into the story and effectively has a choice to make, as did the readers all those years ago. Is the Governess telling the truth and really has seen the ghostly apparitions of Jessel and Quint? Or are they simply figments of her troubled mind and imagination as she struggles with life at the estate at such an early age? As with the source material, there is no answer to this and nor should there be, as that’s something that will continue to baffle critics for many years to come.

This is a faithful adaptation and one that tells the story as it was intended to be told, and for that it deserves credit, not veering off in all directions to try to modernise what is essentially a good old-fashioned ghost yarn.


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