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Turn of the Screw at Mercury Theatre, Colchester – ‘deliciously atmospheric’

Carli-Norris-Photo-by-Robert-Workman Carli Norris in Turn of the Screw at Mercury Theatre, Colchester. Photo: Robert-Workman

Casting new light on the ambiguities central to Henry James’ influential literary ghost story, Tim Luscombe’s Turn of the Screw is intelligent, insightful, and infused with otherworldly menace. Revelling in the text’s contradictions, his adaptation picks apart the tales’ layered, unreliable narratives, introducing an improved framing device which sees gown-up orphan Flora investigating the sinister events of her youth.

Annabel Smith plays both the sceptical adult and the knowing child with energetic earnestness, exploring the uncertain territory between childhood fantasy and dangerous delusion with convincing intensity. As her fraught governess, Carli Norris alternatively brims with pride and frightened fury, while Maggie McCarthy’s below-stairs servant Mrs Grose becomes a key character in her own right, trapped between duty, decency, and superstitious dread.

Marking five years of the Mercury Theatre’s Made in Colchester initiative, the production is helmed by artistic director Daniel Buckroyd, who skilfully balances believable psychological drama against lurid Victorian phantasmagoria. For every jarring harpsichord note and creaky, riderless rocking horse, there is a moment of incisive – if often archly delivered – character development.

Matt Leventhall’s lighting smooths out some of these rougher edges, with a design of tremendous, tenebrous subtlety. Shadows lengthen and gaslight flickers in the encroaching gloom. Silhouettes appear behind foggy windowpanes, spectres freeze in lightning flashes, and brimstone-yellow cracks open up in the floorboards.

This is all framed by Sara Perks’ ominous set, where skewed pillars and a slanted proscenium loom over an effectively-realised mansion draped in dust sheets and cluttered with antique furniture.

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Tightly-wound and deliciously atmospheric production incisively updates Henry James’ neo-gothic classic