turning the screw review

Review: Turning the Screw, New Wimbledon Theatre

Review: Turning the Screw, New Wimbledon Theatre

A much needed show – brilliantly done.


The “infatuations” Benjamin Britten had with various young boys are well documented but somehow often have been presented in euphemistic terms. His friend, conductor Charles Mackerras even admitted: “Obviously it was a sexual attraction [towards a 12 year-old-boy] but I’m sure that it was never actually fulfilled” (quote from John Bridcut’s “Britten’s Children”). There was just one boy, after all, who’s ever accused Britten of sexual abuse and the others spoke of his conduct being “beyond reproach” – and that includes David Hemmings, the young protagonist of this play, even though Britten abruptly cut all contact with him the moment his voice cracked and his Ganymedian characteristics begun to fade.  

This play – although never overtly vulgar or even graphic – attempts to present this odd relationship for what it truly was: emotional abuse and victim blaming. And it makes for a much needed – although thoroughly uncomfortable – spectacle.  

Turning the Screw – a twist on the title of Britten’s famous chamber opera The Turn of the Screw – is narrated by David Hemmings (a fantastic and very convincing Christian Andrews). He gets cast as Miles, the young allegedly possessed protagonist, not due to his outstanding voice or acting skills but rather his “rough edges” Britten imagines Miles having, and subsequently invited to spend the summer with Britten, his partner Peter Pears and his musical assistant Imogen Holst. The situation quickly evolves in an alarming direction, with Britten engaging in naked midnight swims with the boy and the two sharing a bed (though not in a sexual way) on at least one occasion. All the while David is being accused of vying for “Benji’s” attention with various unscrupulous methods to absolve the composer of any guilt. There is one very revealing monologue showing how deeply detached from reality Britten really is and how vile his close environment has become in an effort to protect him – and themselves – from facing the truth of the dreadfulness of his actions.   

The small cast is pretty incredible from the beginning to the end. Gary Tushaw as Britten is in equal parts magnetic and repulsive and Adam Lilley as Peter Pears does a tremendous job of playing a man in love yet jealous of his partner’s underage objects of affection and no shying away from blatant victim blaming when convenient. Jo Wickham is very convincing as Britten’s musical assistant, aware of the dubious actions he engages in and yet too captivated to leave.  

Stage design is very clever and atmospheric, with pieces of furniture scattered on the stage and covered with sheets of music notation. It creates something of a gothic chamber atmosphere that is intimate enough to provide an effective setting for the show’s uncomfortable going-ons. There are some lovely touches in Tim McArthur’s direction, too, such as having Britten conducting to the audience 

It’s a brilliant show. There is something deeply upsetting, almost shocking to the core about the bluntness in which it tackles the relationship between Hemmings and Britten. But it is necessary – and very well done.  

New Wimbledon Theatre, until 29 October