Turning The Screw ★★★

Turning The Screw sees composer Benjamin Britten grappling with his desires amid the pink panic of the 1950s

As one of the first shows to grace the stage at the new The King’s Head Theatre in Islington, is Kevin Kelly’s thought-provoking play Turning the Screw, a ‘flat head’ at the King’s Head?

The story follows Britten as he is writing a new opera based on Henry James’ novella ‘The Turn of the Screw’. During its creation, Britten welcomes choirboy David Hemmings into the home he shares with his partner Peter Pears. Their seemingly innocent relationship begins to develop, and the storyline of the opera starts to bleed into the reality of their lives together.  

Images by Polly Hancock

The play is well-cast, but the story somewhat lacks a composition worthy of Britten’s legacy.

 It is fair to argue that an honest, no-holds-barred depiction of an artist and historical figure should be allowed to be crudely accurate, but with a figure such as Britten, who is a household name that brushed shoulders with Royalty and lived at a time when it was illegal to be gay, did the story have to be so heavily focussed on the subject of his affections towards the 12-year-old protégé of his new opera? Probably not.

A figure and talent as revered as Britten, whose music is still played and performed all over the world 90 years on from his breakthrough a capella choral work A Boy Was Born made him famous, he could almost certainly have inspired a gripping storyline focussed on a different narrative, but here we are.

 Whilst Kings Head Theatre audiences regularly applaud challenging theatre, its important to remember that it need not be taboo or risqué, it just needs to speak to its audience in a way that they can emote and be taken on a journey beyond the parameters of more mainstream storylines you might see in a West End playhouse.

Turn The Screw has a strong cast, all of whom work hard to portray an honest and sensitive piece of intimate post-war theatre, whilst in a very new theatre space.

Led by Gary Tushaw in the role of Benjamin Britten, alongside Liam Watson as David Hemmings, they both deliver strong, believable portrayals of their respective characters, and they are well-supported by Simon Willmont who plays Britten’s long standing lover Peter Pears, and the rest of the cast, Jo Wickham, Jonathan Clarkson, and Sam McHale. Clarkson particularly stands out, with fiercely authentic moments and great delivery of every line. 

The piece isn’t without moments of strong emotion and tension but it lacks pace and production (aside from some thoughtful lighting), and the moments of uncomfortable paedophilic themes in both the script and direction, feel too blatant and unresolvedly problematic. 

Five stars for the brand-new King’s Head Theatre in Islington though! For a long-standing venue with a wealth of history, this purpose-built space is a serious upgrade. 

Promising performances can’t save this problematic production ★★★