“The Turn of the Screw” is a story with ghosts, which is not the same thing as a ghost story. The latter invokes the kind of horror illustrated here by thunderclaps, lightning flashes and ghastly apparitions. But Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s Freud-inflected adaptation cleaves to the former, dramatizing Henry James’ preoccupation with muffled, misplaced desire, guilt and innocence. Despite unstinting effort from Anna Madeley as the Governess, Lindsay Posner’s wannabe Gothic production is a near fatal mismatch.

James’s original is a masterpiece of understatement reliant upon its suggestive undercurrents crucially set up in the opening scene. Whether or not there’s explicit attraction between the Governess and her soon-to-be employer Sackville (Orlando Wells) is a matter of authorial/directorial choice. But whichever route is chosen, there has to be tension of some kind between the two to fire up the story. But Wells’ effortful upper-class vowels flatten his portrayal and militate against any of that. Madeley is left to emote against Posner’s unmined subtext.

Once the Governess is installed at Sackville’s country house, beneath the eye of Gemma Jones’ bustling housekeeper Mrs. Grose, horrifying events gradually overtake her. Madeley carefully charts the growth from fretfulness to feverish terror, but the crucial interchanges with her charges are stymied by miscasting.

The boy Miles is at the dark heart of the story, and Lenkiewicz creates a large role for him. So large, in fact, that Posner has cast 17-year-old, insufficiently innocent Laurence Belcher. Out goes the necessary fragility and the worrying sense of sexuality invading childhood that is central to the tale.

Robbed of the alarming, transgressive erotic charge, the evening falls into a succession of individual scenes lacking cumulative atmosphere. Especially in the first half, scenes feel slack when they should be brooding and even when a moment begins to resonate, tension evaporates during the transitions.

Posner’s lack of clarity over whether the events are caused by the governess’ imagination or havoc wreaked by genuine ghosts may be the result of aiming for ambiguity. But to achieve that, audiences have to be in thrall to the double vision. There’s a handful of well-timed shocks via the design team, notably lighting designer Tim Mitchell’s flashes of lightning and sudden ghostly reveals courtesy of illusionist Scott Penrose. But it’s a sign of the production’s tonal inconsistency that gasps are outnumbered by embarrassed giggles.

The Turn of the Screw

Almeida Theater, London; 320 seats; £32 $50 top

  • Production: An Almeida Theater, ACT Productions Limited, Hammer Theater of Horror presentation of a play by Rebecca Lenkiewicz based on the novel by Henry James. Directed by Lindsay Posner.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Peter McKintosh; lighting, Tim Mitchell; sound, John Leonard; music, Gary Yershon; illusions, Scott Penrose; video, Jack Henry James; production stage manage, Laura Flowers. Opened, Jan. 24, 2013, reviewed Jan. 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MINS.
  • Cast: Governess - Anna Madeley<br> Miles - Laurence Belcher<br> Flora - Lucy Morton<br> Mrs. Grose - Gemma Jones<br> Sackville - Orlando Wells<br> Miss Jessell - Caroline Bartleet<br> Peter Quint - Eoin Geoghegan
  • Music By: