Ahead of its production of Little Shop of Horrors, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre stages a subtler and more sinister musical chiller, equally well suited to this verdant setting.
Directed by the Open Air Theatre’s artistic director Timothy Sheader, this production of The Turn of the Screw is the result of a new partnership with English National Opera, which fields two casts for the nine performances.
Predictably, Sheader makes creative use of the wide open spaces. Soutra Gilmour’s design places a dilapidated glasshouse amidst an overgrown garden. A raised wooden walkway and a ramshackle piano nestle in the grass.
The singer of the Prologue (William Morgan) is planted in the audience and the ghosts (Elgan Llyr Thomas as the auburn-mopped Quint, Elin Pritchard as the heavily pregnant Miss Jessel) enter through the auditorium. The children, Miles and Flora (Daniel Alexander Sidhom and Elen Willmer) have plenty of room to leap and play.
The downside is that a growing sense of claustrophobic panic becomes harder to evoke. Perhaps, too, Sheader renders the ghosts too robust and corporeal. There is even the suggestion of an ectoplasmic threesome with the Governess.
The voices are skilfully amplified, retaining some natural acoustic resonance, but the score’s more diaphanous moments are compromised by the miking of the 13-strong instrumental ensemble, placed at the back of the greenhouse.
The most memorable moment comes in Act II as dusk descends on the theatre and the Governess is alone with Miles, who by this point appears both vulnerable and malign. The scene is both touching and unnerving.
In the course of the opera Sidhom seems to evolve into adolescence – or perhaps premature adulthood – before our eyes, while Willmer’s poised Flora is both captivating and spiteful. Janis Kelly’s Mrs Grose might not be warmly maternal of tone, but she is utterly persuasive as she gradually resigns herself to disaster.
As the Prologue, William Morgan (Quint in the alternate cast) immediately collars the audience with his lively presence and pliant tenor, while Thomas’s Quint duly dominates the action with his interventions: his sound is both lean and ringing and he exudes a natural confidence. Pritchard brings rich, shining tone to Miss Jessel, here more an enigmatic than tragic figure, suggestive of a fairy tale with her implausibly long, thick plait of hair.
The central figure, the Governess, is sung here by Anita Watson. The gentle radiance of her soprano and the unforced clarity of her diction (there are no surtitles) are matched by an economical, but always eloquent physical performance. Her smile speaks volumes.
Conducting, Toby Purser ratchets up the tension over the two hours and the denser textures of the closing scenes fill the air with a palpable dramatic charge.