REVIEW: Turning the Screw (King’s Head Theatre)

Content warning: Turning the Screw contains themes of paedophilia, victim blaming and abuse of power in the arts. It is recommended for audiences age 16+

After closing its doors in August 2023, King’s Head Theatre has recently re-opened in a shiny new purpose-built venue (just behind the pub it called home for 53 years). With an artistic policy of producing “joyful, irreverent, colourful & queer theatre”, King’s Head Theatre focuses on producing LGBTQ+ work across a range of different performance styles. One of the first shows in their new space is Turning the Screw, an exploration of the private life of composer Benjamin Britten during the “pink panic” of the 1950s.

Written by Kevin Kelly and directed by Tim McArthur, Turning the Screw was previously performed at New Wimbledon Theatre Studio in 2022. In returning to the piece two years later, the aim is purportedly to tell the story in a “stronger, more emotional and more dramatic way”, sensitively addressing a true story while encouraging audiences to question what they have seen. This all sounds very promising on paper, but the problem with this play lies in its failure to take a strong stance on the subject matter it portrays.

The play focuses on Britten (Gary Tushaw) as he writes his opera, The Turn of the Screw, a tragedy based on the Henry James novel about a governess caring for two children corrupted by ghosts. We first encounter Britten as he is searching for a youngster to play the leading role of Miles. Enter David Hemmings (Liam Watson), a working-class choirboy with exactly the rough edges Britten is after. So despite Hemmings’ less than perfect voice, Britten invites him into the home he shares with his partner, Peter Pears (Simon Willmont) for intensive training.

Gary Tushaw as Benjamin Britten and Simon Willmont as Peter Pears. Image credit: Polly Hancock

For those unfamiliar with the personal life of Benjamin Britten, it’s an interesting piece of history and would make for a compelling documentary. However, by adopting a position of neutrality and presenting the relationship between Britten and Hemmings as grey in nature (even going as far as suggesting that Hemmings may have been at fault), the play becomes increasingly unsettling.

While it is completely fair enough to leave open the question about exactly what happened between Britten and Hemmings, there is a much more uncomfortable question raised about what would have constituted a crossing of the moral line. Of course, the issue of power imbalance in the arts is an important topic of discussion, but when a story is about a powerful adult’s infatuation with prepubescent boys, there hardly seems to be scope for debate. And although there is impact in the scenes dealing with Britten and Pears having to hide their consensual adult relationship, it all becomes horribly tangled up with the issue of Britten’s developing relationship with Hemmings.

Gary Tushaw as Benjamin Britten and Liam Watson as David Hemmings. Image credit: Polly Hancock

None of this is helped by confused direction (including an odd dream sequence) and some almost Am-Dram acting. In particular, although the decision to cast an adult as Hemmings is understandable, Watson’s portrayal is too light-hearted to pack the necessary emotional punch. On the plus side, there is some nice integration of music within the performance, and an effective blurring of the lines between Britten’s reality and the opera he is writing.

Ultimately, Turning the Screw feels at best distasteful, getting disconcertingly close to equating homosexuality with paedophilia. While the intention may have been to be provocative, it misses the mark and instead becomes an uncomfortable experience. Although Benjamin Britten’s story might well make for a powerful play, this – at least in its current iteration – isn’t it.

Turning the Screw plays at King’s Head Theatre from 14 February to 10 March 2024. We received a complimentary press ticket to the press performance on 16 February.

Image credit: Polly Hancock