The Theatreguide.London Review
Of The Screw
Almeida Theatre Winter-Spring 2013
I have just summarised Rebecca Lenkiewicz's new adaptation of Henry James' classic novella, and Lindsay Posner's production of it.
James' story, of a new governess convinced that her young charges are threatened by the malevolent and sexually voracious ghosts of her predecessor and that woman's lover, has two things going for it, atmosphere – the feeling that this particular old country house might very well be haunted – and ambiguity – the tantalising suspicion that the ghosts and the threat might be projections of the governess's own suppressed and neurotic sexuality.
Lenkiewicz and Posner eliminate both completely.
There is no particular ominousness or spookiness to the setting, beyond a rather obvious attempt to generate some with a thunderstorm. And Anna Madeley has been directed to play the governess as uncomplicatedly sane and clear-headed throughout, leaving us no opportunity to doubt the reality of what she sees.
And so what are we left with? Some sudden appearances of mysterious figures in flashes of lightning (accompanied by make-you-jump thunderclaps) or at suddenly-illuminated windows, or even in the governess's bed (that last, along with some very unJamesian foul language, a hint of Lenkiewicz's general coarsening of her source).
In short, the theatrical equivalents of shouting BOO! at the audience.
The frights (programme credit to an illusionist) aren't even especially clever. The minute you see a large blackboard on a classroom wall, you know there is eventually going to be some magic writing on it, and when it finally comes, it generates almost as many giggles (especially among those who have recently seen Matilda) as gasps.
Accept that Anna Madeley has been directed to play the governess as unambiguously sane, and she does a fine job. Gemma Jones injects a bit of life into the stock figure of the well-meaning housekeeper, but Laurence Belcher and a rotating trio of young actresses have been directed to play the children significantly broader and with significantly less reality than you'd find in a Christmas Panto.
If sitting in a dark room watching a not-especially engrossing story and being startled every half-hour or so is your idea of a satisfying psychological drama, here it is. But everything that is great about James' story is absent.
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