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[CONTAINS SPOILERS]

Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw is one of the ripest pieces of fiction for re-reading. One never ceases to marvel at Henry’s genius in creating a never-ending debate about whether the notoriously unreliable narrator’s charges were possessed by ghosts, or if she fabricated the whole thing from her repressed imagination. It’s no surprise that this material has fascinated adaptors, the most renowned adaptations being Benjamin Britten’s opera and the film The Innocents, and in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new version, sex comes to the fore. Making the implicit explicit and the protagonist clearly not entirely sane from the beginning jars with James’s tone, but from a theatrical point of view, it’s handsomely presented by Lindsay Posner with a good smattering of jumpy moments engineered by magician Scott Penrose to satisfy thrill seekers.

A nameless Governess is appointed to teach two seemingly perfect orphans by their remote uncle after the mysterious death of her predecessor, Miss Jessel, and vows to “love them like my own”. Upon arrival, she is greeted by Flora’s graveyard of dead animals and Miles’s expulsion from school for “filth and obscenity”. After seeing visions of a man whom no one else can see, the faithful retainer Mrs Grose (a nicely balanced performance by Gemma Jones) reveals Miss Jessel’s involvement with the absent master’s late valet Peter Quint and his influence on Miles, which she takes a sign to embark on a bloody-minded crusade to save her little angels from contamination.

Anna Madeley does a respectable job as the Governess and effectively captures the plight of a gentlewoman in reduced circumstances occupying the delicate middle ground of being neither a servant nor one of the family, but the character’s descent is mapped out too early on. The children, who call their governess ‘My dear’ and ‘Old girl’ (enough to mark them out as creepy), are played with preternatural assuredness: Flora (Emilia Jones at the performance I attended) is a little madam who switches from being stand-offish to overly familiar in a blink of an eye. Interestingly, Laurence Belcher’s Miles isn’t a prepubescent, but a teenager old enough to be curious about sex, utterly charming one moment, and using the Governess’s status as a paid employee and a virgin as a jeer the next.

Most controversially, Lenkiewicz explicitly illustrates the worst thing that Quint could have done to Miles. It’s a possibility that lurks in modern readers’ minds (and quite possibly Victorian readers’ too), but I don’t believe that such a thought would have occurred to a young woman of the Governess’s background. Whilst engaging these shock tactics, the very real horror for Victorian society of a lady involved in a sexual relationship with a social inferior is barely touched upon.

More pleasingly, the ghosts, true to the book, are portrayed as solid creatures who appear in broad daylight and make eye contact, most effectively when Miss Jessel and her replacement eye each other from parallel desks, the mute Jessel making her message clear with a piece of chalk possessed with a life of its own (á la Matilda). Peter McKintosh’s set is a magnificent piece of crumbling grandeur, though rather more like Daphne du Maurier’s ancestral pile Manderley than a manor house.

Ambiguity is ultimately sacrificed in Miles’s death in which the Governess literally smothers him with her love. Such an ending inspires a very restrained ovation – for all the flaws in Lenkiewicz’s adaptation, this doesn’t seem entirely fair.

The Turn of the Screw is playing at the Almeida Theatre until 16 March. For more information and tickets, see www.almeida.co.uk/.