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Turning The Screw – The Studio at New Wimbledon Theatre, London

Reviewer: Andrew Houghton

Writer: Kevin Kelly

Director: Tim McArthur

Kevin Kelly frames his new play Turning The Screw as a nod to LGBTQ+ history in representing Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears’ openly homosexual relationship in the 1950’s, but also as an exploration of the increasingly common question: whether art can be separated from the artist. Ironically, in its period-setting this production would be considered indecent for its blatant homosexual content, yet in modern day it feels inappropriate still for its indelicate handling of a grooming situation.

The plot centres around acclaimed composer Britten and the controversial casting of David Hemmings in his operatic adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. Though Hemmings was not considered to be a particularly gifted musician, Britten insisted upon choosing him and an emotional relationship began between the pair during an intensive series of private lessons. A slow-paced but carefully considered first act charts their burgeoning connection with well-placed moments of intimacy, before the latter half of the production gets morally messy.

Stories without a clear antagonist can be some of the best, capitalising on the messy nature of human relationships and the deep-rooted desire to determine who is ‘right’. However, the heavy-handed victim-blaming of this show results in significant discomfort. Throughout the play, other characters recognise Ben’s frequent fascinations with young boys, yet dismiss them as simple obsessions that he – or rather each subject of his attention – eventually outgrows. Meanwhile, a 12-year-old is considered responsible for luring autonomous adults into intimate situations.

The cast have strong singing voices across the board and give earnest performances of the complex script. As Britten, Gary Tushaw gives an incredibly committed performance, channelling enough eager enthusiasm for music to engage even those who are not operatically inclined, and his descent into obsession is something to behold. Christian Andrews as Hemmings is an interesting casting choice as he towers in height above the other performers, yet his performance is impressively layered and clearly youthful. It could even be considered narratively effective that the audience is jarred by each reference to Hemmings being only 12 years old.

A talented creative team strengthen this production with commendable design elements. Amy Mitchell’s set design is intelligent and intricate, with each piece of furniture plastered with sheet music, and a dramatic lighting design by Vittorio Verta creates atmosphere well. Naturally a cohesive sound design is fundamental for a show of this nature and Rudy Percival delivers, even providing some original compositions to accompany the work of Britten which is littered throughout.

If Kelly’s aim is to highlight how inappropriately the situation was resolved, there is certainly potential for Turning The Screw to be an incredibly thought-provoking production indeed. Unfortunately, in its current state, the subject matter is just not handled sensitively enough. With no noticeable pre-show trigger warnings or post-show resources available for those affected by the content, Kelly seems unaware of how damaging the depicted events could be.

Furthermore, with a questionable dedication to Britten himself in the programme, the question left hanging is: what is Kelly trying to convey in reviving this controversial piece of history?

Runs until 29 October 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Morally messy

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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One Comment

  1. Dear Andrew.
    Thank you for your review.
    I’m a Director of the production company that produced Turning The Screw.
    I’m also a psychotherapist and accredited member of the BACP.
    I would like to reassure you that throughout the creative process of bringing the play to the stage, Kevin Kelly worked closely with myself, the director and cast to ensure that the subject matter was handled sensitively. The creative and collaborative process involved people whose ages ranged from early twenties to late fifties and who brought considerably life experiences (both good and bad) to help mould the work.
    We discussed it with the theatre and It was decided that pre-show trigger warnings were not deemed necessary as the adult audience, we felt, can be responsible for managing their own emotions. Staff were on hand should a member of the audience feel overwhelmed and need to exit the auditorium during the performance. We also didn’t want the audience to pre-judge the content – if we warned them that the piece contained scenes of abuse they might have inferred that Britten had indeed abused Hemmings but we wanted that to be ambiguous – we don’t know exactly what happened, we only have the accounts of the people who were there.
    In this internet age and allowing for audience autonomy we felt that suggesting post-show resources for those affected by the content to be rather patronising and unnecessary.
    Well done you for concluding that indeed the question IS left hanging. We don’t know the answer to this controversial piece of history.
    Hopefully one third of the audience blames one person, one third the other person and one third can’t decide.
    We think that’s what makes this play a brilliant piece of theatre: it doesn’t hand you the answers on a plate. As so many audience members (of all ages) concluded “It really makes you think!”
    And morally messy allows people to make their own mind up when issues aren’t cut and dry.

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