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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Almeida


  Anna Madeley and Lucy Morton/ Ph: Nobby Clark

I'm delighted to report that Henry James' 1897 ghostly novella is the inspiration for one of the finest stage adaptations I have seen. In telling the story of a governess hired to educate two orphaned siblings, both of whom are haunted by the ghosts of dead adults, the show is rooted by a deep understanding of the story's psychology.

Unfortunately, it has been a couple of years since I saw that production, a revival of Benjamin Britten's opera directed by David McVicar. This latest version, which transforms the book into a play directed by Lindsay Posner, and features a solid script by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is terrifying in its own way. Posner expertly deploys all manner of stage techniques that make the heart pound and the fists clench, but make the mind resentful of being manipulated by stage techniques that wouldn't be out of place in the London Dungeon tourist attraction.

The star of the show is Peter McKintosh's design of distressed interior walls. The main partition bisects the Almeida's revolving stage and contains a large window that looks out onto nothingness and through which anything might suddenly appear. The effect is added to with projections of flying bats and flashes of lightning. Not since the musical version of the film Ghost has stagecraft been so well used to depict the supernatural.

But the power of this story lies in its ability to tap into the adult fear of children with secrets. And while Laurence Belcher as the intimidating, assured teenager Miles is terrifically spooky, as is (on this night) Lucy Morton as his younger sister, we're so busy being made to jump out of our skins during this fright fest, there's no time to dwell on the ambiguities of James' tale. The show elicits the kind of raw emotion that is followed by a resentment at being so blatantly manipulated. A subtler production would have allowed time to explore the chasm of understanding – or misunderstanding – that can exist between adults and children. And it would have left us more disturbed and for longer. Here, the overriding sense is merely one of relief at having survived. 

That said, judging from the audience, many of whose yelps were followed by chuckles acknowledging their own gullibility (myself included), not one of us would have stuck at the job of guardian for half as long as Anna Madeley's brave and determined Governess. It seems we would run from the Essex estate in which the play is set while screaming our heads off, and the children at the mercy of malign ghosts. What a bunch of scaredy-cats we are.


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