Set in 1860, the tale of The Governess centres around the disappearance of a young infant from his bed and the ensuing turmoil which befell almost everyone concerned. As is par for the course for Victorian drama and mystery, not is all it initially appears to be, and very soon we are given an insight into some of the usual rather shadier goings on in houses of wealth and prestige. I’m not sure why, but most tales of this period take great pleasure in portraying the now sterotypical blend; driven master of the house who has at least one lover ‘on the staff’; the put upon/ ill /misunderstood wife; a couple of older children who cry out for their parents attentions (usually in the form of rebellious behaviour) and of course the all seeing, all knowing but never saying housekeeper.
Written by Patrick Hamilton (who is perhaps better known for Gaslight) this tale follows the aforementioned formula very, very closely, which is a shame as it means it also follows the now cliched telegraphed plot, lack of twists and monotonously paced slow-burn lead to the final, fully expected reveal. There is never quite enough depth to each character to allow the audience to form an emotional attachment and because of this they also have no opinion on the outcome.
The first act plays out the relationships between the Ethel Fry, the titular Governess (Jenny Seagrove) , her young charge Ellen (Lydia Orange) and Mr George Drew (Colin Buchanan). There are glimpses of some repressed sadism in the way Ms Seagrove portrays Fry, but not enough to really feel that she is dangerous. Likewise, Mr Drew is a driven, succesful, no nonsense ‘master of the house’ yet he seems lost and unsure of what he is when alone with Fry. It is somewhat unfortunate for the attempted building of tension that Ellen turns out to be an all-seeing somnambulist who, despite the best endeavours of Fry, manages to pretty much give the end game away before the close of act one, leaving the audience just waiting to collectively murmour “thought so”.
The 2nd act is somewhat better, all for the introduction of Peter Bowles as DI Rough – the Victorian version of Columbo without the brown mac. Mr Bowles brings his much more insightful character to life with humour, matter of fact deductions and timing which held the audience even though they still knew whodunnit. The end scene, with Fry confronted by her crime, sees her descend into a bizarre, poetry quoting regression – a sort of lite version of a mental breakdown.
If you’re looking for something to rival Oscar Wilde’s wordplays, or The Woman in Blacks scares, or Dickens depth of characters then this play really isn’t for you; if however you want another good Victorian tale set in an Upstairs/Downstairs style house which won’t tax the brain then this will certainly fill your evening (or at least part of it).