The world has long had a fascination with ghost stories. Possibly this is due to a need to believe that a human’s span of existence is much longer than the four score years and ten they spend on the earth. Maybe it’s also a way of keeping our loved ones ‘alive’ but whatever the reason, life after death and what happens once you pass through the veil has long been an obsession of people. And so, with this in mind, I was off to the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham for an evening of spooky goings on with Jeffrey Hatcher’s The Turn of the Screw.
In Victorian London, a young lady (Ruth Oliman) is being interviewed for the post of governess. Her interviewer (Nick Danan) is a city gent who is the uncle to two children – Miles and Flora – that live in his country house. The uncle professes that he has no interest in the children and, should she get the job, the young lady is not to contact him about the children under any circumstances. Accepting this odd contract, the governess heads off to the Essex and Bly House. At first, all is well and the governess settles in with the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, and Flora. Miles was at school but returns early for the holidays and then things begin to change. The ghosts of two former servants seem to haunt Bly House and the Governess believes that they wish to possess the souls of the children. She starts a battle to the death with the spirits, but is all as it seems or are these phantoms something more sinister than mere ghosts?
Based on a novella by Henry James, The Turn of the Screw is unusual when it comes to ghost stories as there is no real end. Usually, good triumphs over evil or vice versa. However, by the time this story finishes, it is left up to the audience to decide what may be reality and what may be the product of an off-kilter mind. Deciding to reduce the story to two actors felt like quite a brave decision but, thanks to the quality of those actors, worked very well. Nick Danan, in the roles of The Gentleman, Mrs Gross and Miles, was really excellent in creating those three characters as sentient human beings merely by his voice and facial expressions. And I have to say, if it hadn’t been for the programme biog, I would not have any clue that Ruth Ollman had only graduated from Guildhall this year. Her performance was so assured, confident and polished in what is a very intense role, that you would have thought she had been treading the boards for a good many years now. Definitely an actor to watch out for in the future.
The staging by Paul Lloyd was very sparse, merely a large chair and a bookcase. But when combined with Simon Gethin Thomas’ lighting – including the use of footlights – it was all very atmospheric and was only missing a working fireplace to make it perfect for a Victorian tale. My one criticism of the staging was, yet again, smoke continually being wafted about. I know it helps create an atmosphere but that can all be achieved by lighting, set and the actors. The stage at the Omnibus is quite large and Director James O’Donnell uses the space well, almost zoning it off so that you know if the cast are one side, they are outside the house, if on the other, then inside etc. A nice trick that worked very well.
All in all, The Turn of the Screw is a wonderful example of a Victorian ghost storytelling brought to life in a nearly flawless production. This is the first production from new company Strange Fish and they have definitely set the bar high for their future shows. As stories go, I have never changed my mind about what I was seeing so often. To the basic question, were the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw real? My answer is a definite yes/maybe/no, and I will stand by that until I have another revelation and change my mind again.
Review by Terry Eastham
In this classic gothic thriller, a young governess travels to an isolated house in Bly to care for her new wards, Miles and Flora. To begin with, the children beguile their guardian with poetry and song. But as she grows to love them, figures emerge from the darkness outside and the shadowy recesses of the house are haunted by those that have gone before.
A Classic Ghost Story for Christmas
Strange Fish Theatre Company presents
The Turn of the Screw
Written by Jeffrey Hatcher (Mr Holmes, Casanova)
Based on the novel by Henry James
Cast: Nick Danan and Ruth Ollman
Directed by James O’Donnell
Set and Costumes designed by Paul Lloyd
Movement by Matt Dunphy
Lighting designed by Simon Gethin-Thomas
Sound Scape by Jon McLeod
Stage Management by Beth Pratt
For more information about Strange Fish and to book tickets, please visit the Strange Fish website at: