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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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The Night Before Christmas

Southwark Playhouse

The Night Before Christmas

The Night Before Christmas

Southwark Playhouse

Reviewed – 30th November 2018


“This not-at-all-family-friendly Christmas tale is wickedly clever, and doesn’t fail to draw laughs”


It’s Christmas Eve, and Simon (Michael Salami) is less than thrilled to be called out of bed in the middle of the night. His friend, Gary (Douggie McMeekin), has caught an Elf (Dan Starkey) breaking into his warehouse. Or at least a man dressed like an elf. Elf claims he fell from Santa’s sleigh. Gullible Gary is inclined to believe him. Cynical Simon tells Gary to call the police. Elf begs to be let go, plying them with detailed information about Santa, including the Powdered Christmas Feeling (PCF) he gives to children (great high, no side effects).

Gary and Simon are still deliberating what to do when sex-worker Cherry (Unique Spencer) arrives, demanding the Power Rangers for her son Gary promised her in exchange for sex. Elf says he needs to get back to Santa’s sleigh, but when Cherry checks his arms, she finds track marks. Obviously a junkie. Elf protests, it’s just PFC! He’ll grant each of them one wish if they’ll just let him go…

This not-at-all-family-friendly Christmas tale is wickedly clever, and doesn’t fail to draw laughs. It’s also touching – surprisingly Christmas-spirited – as even the most jaded adults manage to rediscover the Christmas feeling.

Director Alex Sutton’s revival of Anthony Neilson’s play, which premiered in London in 1995, is as sweary and gritty (real cigarettes smoked on stage) as its “in-yer-face” author intended. Unfortunately though, the story has just got started when it’s dragged to a near-standstill by overly-lengthy expositional dialogue. Gary and Simon spend too long questioning Elf and not believing him. Their extended Q&A interrogates the rules of Santa’s operation to an unnecessary extent, and while Elf’s explanation is unique, it’s pure exposition. The performance feels stalled with Simon constantly threatening to call the police, and neither of them making a decision. When Cherry finally arrives on the scene, it’s like being yanked out of the mud. The pace falters again later with the characters’ circular debate over which wishes to choose. When a play has a 65-minute runtime, it’s not good for scenes to feel long.

McMeekin, Salami, and Spencer give high-energy, confident performances with skilled comedic timing. Starkey’s decision to play the elf straightforward – distressed and desperate – forgoes some of the potential comedy in the role. Designer Michael Leopold has made effective use of a sparse set, and delights the audience with some well-timed ‘Christmas magic.’

Considering Soho Theatre’s 2013 revival of The Night Before Christmas was a musical, there’s a question of whether this 2018 revival has anything to add to the original. The script provides an excellent premise, but it feels as though Sutton has missed an opportunity to address its flaws, and contribute a fresh perspective.

The Night Before Christmas is fun, silly, ‘alternative’ Christmas theatre, but this revival doesn’t lift the play above the original’s pitfalls.


Reviewed by Addison Waite

Photography by Darren Bell


The Night Before Christmas

Southwark Playhouse until 29th December


Last ten shows reviewed at this venue:
Old Fools | ★★★★★ | March 2018
The Country Wife | ★★★ | April 2018
Confidence | ★★ | May 2018
The Rink | ★★★★ | May 2018
Why is the Sky Blue? | ★★★★★ | May 2018
Wasted | ★★★ | September 2018
The Sweet Science of Bruising | ★★★★ | October 2018
The Trench | ★★★ | October 2018
The Funeral Director | ★★★★★ | November 2018
Seussical The Musical | ★★★★ | November 2018

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