King’s Head Theatre

TURNING THE SCREW at the King’s Head Theatre


“a play of startling thematic relevance to today”

In 1956, Benjamin Britten wrote a pen portrait of himself as a child. He described himself as a kid who ‘behaved fairly well […] so that his contacts with the cane or the slipper were happily rare (although one nocturnal expedition to stalk ghosts left its mark behind).’

This reminiscence echoes the creative and personal tensions Britten underwent two years prior, in the process of finishing his internationally acclaimed operatic adaptation of Henry James’ ghost story ‘The Turn of the Screw’ (1954). ‘Turning the Screw’, a new play, written by Kevin Kelly and directed by Tim McArthur, deftly explores the darker moral entanglements of the period in which Britten wrote the chamber piece.

Set during the height of the ‘pink panic’, Britten’s homosexual relationship with personal and professional partner, Peter Pears left him open to far worse threats than the slipper. In one of the first scenes, Pears (Simon Willmont) returns home to find a frightened Britten (Gary Tushaw) recounting the warnings of a plain clothes policeman (Jonathan Clarkson) that morning. But the fraughtness of their relationship is preluded by the frame narrative of David Hemmings (Liam Watson), the boy for whom Britten wrote the elusive part of Miles for ‘The Turn of the Screw’.

The question of the nature of Britten’s relationship with Hemmings is the guiding dramatic force throughout the play. It is crucial, therefore, that the audience is first confronted with Hemmings as a man. The now veteran actor of deep RP register, opens the play by looking back at the nascence of his career. Yet, in a thought-provoking inversion of the once-choirboy’s vocal maturation, Hemmings overtures the opening mise-en-scène of Britten’s home in the unbroken voice of his 12 year old self.

“The sparing efficacy of the set is both open and homely”

The play’s action rests upon the lingering domestic anxieties which emerge between Britten and Pears. Poised between the position of their public relationship, the introduction of Hemmings into their home, and Britten’s frantic writing of the opera, the piece’s central anxiety echoes that of the ghost story about which Britten was writing. It shares the same fundamental question as that of Britten’s opera and James’ novella, namely, that of the nature of innocence and its corruption. Yet, the vitality of its conceit, and ‘Turning the Screw’s’ major impact, lie in the manifold perspectives from which this question may be approached.

The staging is deeply effective in establishing Hemmings as a spectral éminence grise. He remains a peripheral distraction even in Britten and Pears’ most intimate moments together, as when he can be seen methodically undressing in the corner while the couple argue. The sparing efficacy of the set (Laura Harling) is both open and homely, capable of balancing scenes of claustrophobic domesticity against the hauntingly fluid presence of Hemmings and another child from Britten’s past, titled simply ‘The boy’.

The pared back use of props further builds upon the Turning The Screw’s air of elusiveness, as in the only scene Pears and Hemmings’ share alone, in which the absent Britten’s baton rests ominously centre stage, upon his lectern. One is never entirely sure of who is conducting proceedings. Yet, one wonders whether the effect of this tantalising ambiguity—which necessarily evokes that of the ending of James’ novella—would not be better served without the qualifications of Hemmings’ frame narrative.

The result is a play of startling thematic relevance to today and, echoing the words of Britten’s childhood ghost-hunt, one is left to contemplate the nature of the mark it leaves behind.

TURNING THE SCREW at the King’s Head Theatre

Reviewed on 16th February 2024

by Flynn Hallman

Photography by Polly Hancock



Previously reviewed at this venue:

EXHIBITIONISTS | ★★ | January 2024
DIARY OF A GAY DISASTER | ★★★★ | July 2023
THE BLACK CAT | ★★★★★ | March 2023
THE MANNY | ★★★ | January 2023
FAME WHORE | ★★★ | October 2022
THE DROUGHT | ★★★ | September 2022
BRAWN | ★★ | August 2022
LA BOHÈME | ★★★½ | May 2022
FREUD’S LAST SESSION | ★★★★ | January 2022
BEOWULF: AN EPIC PANTO | ★★★★ | November 2021
TENDER NAPALM | ★★★★★ | October 2021



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