Theatre: On the Fringe

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The Independent Culture
"I REMEMBER the whole beginning as a succession of flights and drops, a little see-saw of the right throbs and the wrong." The first line of the governess's narrative in The Turn of the Screw is typically disorientating, tilting what looks like a fleeting impression of physical surroundings into a kindergarten map of the heart. No staging of James's tale is ever going to be able to match the shiftiness of the prose, but the Young Vic's lucid, pacy production comes pretty close, conjuring a twilight world in which the line between objective and subjective gets hideously blurred.

The House of Detention plays its part, providing a succession of candlelit flights and drops along which members of the audience stoop and stumble, glimpsing as they go, the benighted mannequin inmates, before pitching up in a gloomy central chamber. On either side are rows of dank cells, furnished with random household objects - here a white rocking-horse, there a leather armchair - and festooned with multi-coloured strip-lighting. "This is paradise!" the governess gushes, the vaults echoing to her exclamations.

The contrast between her ecstasy and the surroundings immediately suggests that her powers of make-believe exceed those of her two young charges, whose innocence she deems imperilled. This might make her laughably misguided were it not for Niamh Daly's magnificent performance, which grounds her character's childlike excitability in solemn concentration. We watch an over-inquiring mind lose itself in speculation, prompted by the urgings of her heart (she clearly pines for her absent employer) and the inscrutable behaviour of the children (Ella Jones and Luke Gittos steer clear of brattishness and, like the rest of the cast, make the dialogue sound remarkably unpremeditated).

Where the production falters is in lending the ghostly apparitions sufficient mystery. Doubling up the roles of housekeeper/Jessel and employer/Quint has its drawbacks. The dead bear such resemblance to the living that you wonder at the governess's inability to spot the similarities - or are we not shown what she sees? Such doubts aside (and the performances are good enough to distract you from them), you miss this production at your peril.

The task facing a director tackling Ghosts might seem easier: after all, in Ibsen's play, the not-so-dear departed are "seen" by the mind's eye alone, existing on a consciously metaphorical level to describe a state of congenital atrophy. "I only have to take a newspaper and read it, and I see ghosts between the lines," Mrs Alving tells Pastor Manders. The challenge is to communicate the corrupting influence of the past lurking between the lines of dialogue and it is one that the Actors' Company production, directed by David Harris, only partly meets. Too often members of the cast seem content to deliver their words in a neutral tone without allowing for the emotions that have been gathering in the subtext. What keeps you engaged is Sophie Chalk's Mrs Alving, a woman whose haunted, blanched demeanour conveys an almost audibly troubled heart.

`The Turn of the Screw' is at The House of Detention to Sat, 0171-928 6363. `Ghosts' is at Jermyn Street Theatre, SW1, 0171-287 2875. To 29 Oct