Turning the Screw ★★ King's Head Theatre | Feb 14 - Mar 10, 2024

Turning the Screw revolves around the relationship between the composer, Benjamin Britten, and a 12 year old David Hemmings who premiered the role of Miles in Britten's The Turn of the Screw, a chamber opera which was based on Henry James' eponymous novella. The plot, as far as it develops, concerns the anxieties of Britten's partner, Peter Pears played by Simon Willmont, his producer Basil Coleman (Jonathan Clarkson) and his assistant Imogen Holst (Jo Wickham) about this liaison. They are troubled by both the possible nature of the relationship and the perception of it. The play is based on real events, and Hemmings always denied that there was anything improper about his friendship with Britten, but the audience is left in doubt. Britten was known to have had other such infatuations, and he did end the association with Hemmings when the chorister's voice broke and he was no longer able to sing the part of Miles.

As a play, the question about Turning the Screw becomes whether the piece would have any interest if it were not about two celebrities. There are some provocative and troubling issues that could be addressed such as the conundrum of separating one's perception of an artist from his work, or the questionable nature of some creative inspiration. But, these issues are not really engaged. Instead the play simply undertakes the task of recounting the facts of a questionable historical encounter between two famous people. The opening and closing monologues of Liam Watson as David Hemmings, plus the awkward insertion of historical verifications into the dialogue, belie any attempt to address such broader themes. The rather perfunctory placing of the Pears-Britten relationship in the context of the advancement of gay rights also fails to solve this problem.

Gary Tushaw as Britten and Willmont as Pears both do credible jobs, but their supposedly fraught and sometimes tender discussions seem unnecessarily mannered. It is always a formidable task for an adult to play a child, and Liam Watson as the young Hemmings unfortunately comes across as a caricature rather than as the pre-pubescent mixture of naïveté and cunning that is intended. His audition with its recitation of Browning was both exaggerated and implausible.

The suggested parallelism between the relationship of Britten and Hemmings, and that of the characters Peter Quint and Miles in Britten's opera, might be intended to add a certain resonance to the story, but it didn't really provide any particular depth to the narrative. Turning the Screw may recount an interesting bit of history, but it remains an underdeveloped piece of theatre.

Rated: ★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Polly Hancock

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