Spooky ghouls in a haunting venue

<i>The Turn Of The Screw</i> | Wilton's Music Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

"Wilton's Music Hall was frequented by prostitutes and ruffians ... the proprietor told me he was glad to turn out his turbulent customers, whose chief delight was to ruin each other's physiognomy."

"Wilton's Music Hall was frequented by prostitutes and ruffians ... the proprietor told me he was glad to turn out his turbulent customers, whose chief delight was to ruin each other's physiognomy."

The physiognomy of Wilton's hasn't altered much since Mayhew made his mid-Victorian jottings. You can touch the Sickert-like atmosphere. Last season, its aisles, once peopled by keepers of tally-shops, guffawed to the saucy lyrics of Gay's The Beggar's Opera.

This autumn's production is The Turn of the Screw, Britten's eerie masterpiece which the present incumbents, Broomhill Opera, staged admirably four years ago at its old haunt outside Tunbridge Wells. There, proscenium ruled. Here, Elijah Moshinsky's in-your-teeth new staging delivers events to your eyeball. It lacks Quint arm-wrestling the oboe or Flora gobbing into the front row, but little else.

The results, perhaps surprisingly, enthral. True, conductor Charles Hazlewood's admirably controlled and neatly tucked-away Old Mahogany Bar Band preponderates, and sometimes shrouds Myfanwy Piper's text. Hazlewood isn't afraid to let the orchestra bark; yet the umpteen woodwind minutiae, or the paired strings depicting Miles and Quint's gambolling shadow-play, come across with delicacy and feeling. Hazlewood and his repetiteur Tim Murray have drilled their ensemble so well, the meticulous voice leads feel almost redundant.

Philip Witcomb's designs dwell on one brilliant coup: a huge fuzzed mirror, centrally hinged, which swings to permit toings and froings, and forges an entire Victorian mansion from the concave rear recesses of Wilton's, variously reflected. Miles and Flora perambulate the upstairs gallery, where sailors once dandled their floosies.

Quint slithers downstairs, to Britten's sneery accompaniment, as sinuously as Aladdin's genie. Unusually, it is Quint (Shawn Bartels) who poses a problem - a tattooed near-rapist who virtually takes Tara Harrison's fettered Miss Jessel from the rear, a diabolic sado-masochist who needs her - and Miles - to exercise power, brute power and lustful fantasy.

Such obviousness isn't in the book, let alone in the opera, any more than the crucifix imagery which keeps creeping in. Yet Moshinsky's departures often work: the interludes are acted out consistently well; when Alison Rae Jones's involving Governess, and Carol Rowlands' superbly sung Mrs Grose enter the audience at fulcral moments, our horror, as well as theirs, is redoubled.

As usual, the children have it. Thirteen-year-old Nazan Fikret's shrilly projected Flora is excellent: canny, with a clear will of her own, and a well-conveyed closeness to Miss Jessel (all six insistently wear black: when Jessel and the Governess measure up near the end, they look like alter egos). Jonathan Darbourne's Miles stands in the line of greats: Hemmings, Burkey, Burrowes et al.

He sings as alluringly as he acts, his face is a book, every line is perfectly placed, and he only put two feet wrong the whole evening. I'll leave you to spot where.

To 28 Oct (020-7420 0222)

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