I have loved dark, scary stories since I was a young girl, so the thought of reviewing a play billed as “a chilling ghost story of innocence and evil” certainly peaked my interest. William Archibald’s The Innocents is based on one of Henry James’ most famous short stories, The Turn of the Screw in which a young governess becomes obsessed by the question of childhood corruption. Are the ghostly apparitions she witnesses “real”, or are they a clever manipulation of her mind by her two cunning young charges? The answer to that is one I will leave readers to find out for themselves, but let me just say that it is not as clear-cut as you may like to believe. In fact, the program tells us that critics have long been at odds with what Mr James was actually trying to say with this story and I expect audiences of the stage version will fuel the same debate.
Sets designed by the very clever Sue Watson have never disappointed me and this one is no exception. Attention to detail, from colour choices and window treatments to furniture and ornaments, means we are instantly transported to an English country home in the 1860s. Costumes are also well-chosen, creating a visually pleasing production.
Director Brenda White has gone to great lengths to use the entire stage and create a good deal of movement in what could be a very stilted play if not directed well. Clever positioning of furniture and use of areas such as the stairs for some scenes ensures we never see the actors in one area of the stage for too long. This works extremely well and keeps the play moving at a good pace throughout.
As the pivotal role of Miss Giddens, the governess at the centre of the story, Francesca Gasteen makes a strong attempt at a very difficult role. Her best scenes are in the first act where she shines as the enthusiastic new governess, eager to please and make herself at home. As the play progresses, the character must rapidly move through a great number of emotions before reaching the final climax and, while Ms Gasteen works very hard and cries beautifully, I would like to see some of the other levels of near-madness and absolute despair explored more deeply. Of the remaining cast members, Jordan Bate delivers a delightful performance as Flora, Janet Barnes makes a lovely Mrs Grose and Chris Rieger looks every bit the troubled, rebellious young Miles.
While there is much to like about this production, the main problem I have is the ending which just doesn’t seem to work and which leaves me quite disappointed when everyone works so hard to get to that point. I’m undecided as to whether the script is to blame here, or some confused delivery, or a combination of both, but I just don’t get the “chill” that the play’s promotional blurb promises. Problems with lines and an audible prompt from side-stage do not help when a particular atmosphere is needed for a scene to work.
Having said that, I must applaud Centenary Theatre Group’s decision to stage something different, something that is challenging for its thespians and audience members alike.