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FringeReview UK 2024

Turning the Screw

K-Squared Productions Limited

Genre: Biographical Drama, Drama, LGBTQ+ Theatre, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: King’s Head Theatre


Low Down

“It is a curious story.” Kevin Kelly’s Turning the Screw premieres at the King’s Head Theatre. Directed by Tim McArthur it runs till March 10th. Winning the Sir Ian McKellan award it’s staged in the theatre’s new 200-seat space. Don’t hesitate. This six-hander is a 90-minute announcement of a major talent. An almost flawless play.


Writer Kevin Kelly, Director Tim McArthur, Producer K-Squared Productions Limited, Set Design Laura Harling, Lighting Design Vittorio Verta, Costume Design Michelle Taylor-Knight, Sound Design Paul Gavin, Music Benjamin Britten, Additional Composition Rudy Percival

Till March 10th


“It is a curious story.” Kevin Kelly’s Turning the Screw premieres at the King’s Head Theatre. Directed by Tim McArthur it runs till March 10th. Winning the Sir Ian McKellan award it’s staged in the theatre’s new 200-seat space. Don’t hesitate. This six-hander is a 90-minute announcement of a major talent.

It’s 1953. Benjamin Britten (Gary Tushaw) is working on his second chamber opera – a genre he invented for easy touring, paradoxically tricky to stage in opera houses: some rate it as even finer than Peter Grimes. Based on Henry James’ novella ‘The Turn of the Screw’ it’s spooky. That’s just the auditions.

Britten needs a particular voice for expelled, perhaps sinister schoolboy Miles. Those vocally-rounded lads singing ‘Whe’er you walk’ from Handel’s Semele (sung by Sam Hale). Exquisitely. Next! Britten wants a bit of rough-edge in Miles. Where’s danger?

Danger’s outside: so far. The Tory government’s ratcheting up one of its habitual culture-wars: on ‘high profile homosexuals’, John Gielgud, Lord Montague, Alan Turing. Britten’s house has been searched.

A scalp for homophobes. Policeman (Jonathan Clarkson), drops in to warn in mufti. Britten wonders if composer and Assistant Imogen (Imo) Holst (Jo Wickham), might consider marriage. Too far, even for Imo. Britten suffers night terrors with an imaginary court, where a Judge (Clarkson again) obliterates every scrap of music.

And – protected as he is by partner Peter Pears (Simon Willmont), more gently by Imo Britten encounters more difficulty. The opera’s a set of variations, like The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (we later hear a snippet of that and much else), but less obviously. Britten “can’t see” thematically how this ends. Or hear it either.

Enter David Hemmings (Liam Watson), whom producer Basil Coleman (Clarkson‘s main role) doesn’t take to at all. Nevertheless this future star-actor’s welcomed by Britten into the home he shares with Pears. Britten takes Hemmings for private lessons; to sing Turn of the Screw out loud. The effect’s electrifying. Hemmings, Britten declares, is Miles. Any imperfections can be ironed out.

Now a muse, Hemmings, whose father was a musician, is working-class, uneasy in the way other boys weren’t. He’s dazzled. But otherwise sexually knowing beyond his years: straight but shrewd: there’s a wardrobe mistress. He and Britten go skinny-dipping into an obsession. The “curious story” bleeds into their crafted reality.

Power and psycho-projection warps judgement, alarms friends, endangers Britten – and vulnerable if precocious Hemmings. Hemmings might think he can handle Britten as Britten moulds him.

Fledgeling singers and maestros. There’s always power-imbalances in the arts. This play pitches what its extreme looks like.

Tushaw – like Willmont and Wickham – not only look the part, but inhabit these well-known characters. Without mimicking, Tushaw expresses the complexity of an artist so touchy he dismissed everyone who demurred – except Imo. By turns stern and exuberant, boyishly complicit and furious, uncertain and inspired, this is a tour-de-force of a prickly giant. Tushaw sings unexpectedly, raptly.

Wickham’s Imogen is the one person who can tell Britten where to get off even as composer: she was a very fine one. Wickham’s school-teacher’s persona softens quite early on. To Britten she refuses his quasi-proxy-marriage offer (to Pears). “I want someone to look at me in the way you and Peter look at each other.”

But with Watson’s Hemmings Wickham’s character can warn and comfort, as well as command. Wickham convinces of the iridescent talent Imogen Holst hides beneath the Assistant carapace. And her thwartedness.

Willmont has an unsympathetic part for national treasure Pears: who’s frightend, explodes at his Ben and Hemmings. Outwardly more urbane than Britten, he’s revealed by Kelly to be troubled by both the intimacy and danger Hemmings poses. And Willmont sings too at a poignant moment: a superbly-inflected rendering of ‘The Little Plough-Boy’ as Britten and Hemmings skinny-dip in that thunder-storm.

Watson is a discovery. Moving effortlessly from gauche working-class kid from Woking he moves from star-struck to star-striking when confronting Pears; lets him know he’s perfectly clear what being “queer” is; equally that nothing went on. Even when Britten shared a bed during that storm.

Watson also moves though to his later RP self, framing his story from adulthood and stardom.

There’s delicious moments too Kelly succeeds in conveying whether you know subtext or not. Introducing classical music (including his own) to Hemmings, Britten keeps banging on about the three great Bs – Bach, Brahms, Beethoven (though didn’t like Brahms).

Hemmings adds a fourth: Britten. This is what Britten’s own ambitious mother wanted. It’s a remark straight out of Britten’s childhood, and Tushaw accepts it with just the right mix of pride, modesty and nostalgia for a long-dead mother and a living boy. Hemmings sings superbly: at first hesitant, tongue-tied, then with burgeoning confidence as role and life blur.

But that boy might herald disaster. Clarkson’s Coleman circles with precise British harrumph, Willmont wants Britten out of this latest infatuation; Wickham’s Imo just wants everyone left intact and creative. There’s fireworks ahead.

Laura Harling’s set is an uncluttered stage of screens, stands and music. It’s deliberately transparent, looks what it is: a rehearsal space for an opera. Vittorio Verta’s lighting manages suggestions of a real opera night, or the tenebrous effects of thunder. Paul Gavin’s sound supplies sonics for that and Britten pieces played, with Rudy Percival’s idiomatic linking music. It’s seamlessly cued. There’s also the recorded voice of BBC News Reader (Dickson Farmer).

Britten’s exuberance expresses itself with boys of 12-14, between child and man, he avers. It’s just emotional attachment Britten craves. But like adult friends and colleagues, Britten corpses his muses: when their voices break. And as abruptly as their boy’s soprano voice, Britten leaves them too.

This is an almost flawless play. Originally run without the Boy, that part is a little vestigial still, but that might shift. This is a drama deserving of a further run: places like Bath Studios, Jermyn Street.

Mark Ravenhill’s Ben and Imo, originally on Radio 3 has just opened. That’s the Gloriana full-length opera side of Britten from 1952-53. Kelly’s is the chamber opera’s a year on. As was suggested, some think The Turn of the Screw Britten’s finest music theatre piece. If you’ve seen Ravenhill, you must see this. And if not, see this.