King’s Head, Islington

Picture: Gary Tushaw as Benjamin Britten and Liam Watson as David Hemmings. Photo Polly Hancock

Jealousy and obsession are the themes of Kevin Kelly’s new play about the composer Benjamin Britten and his relationship with his muses. The drama focuses on tensions among the cast preparing for Britten’s opera The Turn of the Screw in 1954 in the claustrophobic environs of the remote Suffolk coastal village of Aldeburgh where Britten and the tenor Peter Pears lived and staged an annual festival. Director Tim McArthur generates a brooding oppressive atmosphere with a surreal edge in the stylised acting of the company.  

Pears was Britten’s ‘house mate, leading tenor, muse, partner……lover’: the coyness with which the composer’s homosexuality is addressed amusingly touches on the prurience and gossip of the community. The artists’ shared domesticity is both scandalous and trivial. The local bobby uses his inside knowledge of their shared bed to wheedle a larger part out of Britten in his next production. 

The composer’s decision to set the spooky, psychological, supernatural novel by Henry James requires him to find a suitable boy soprano for the leading role. He selects the rough diamond David Hemmings played here with state-school coarseness by Liam Watson whose voice in reality broke at least a decade ago but who manages nonetheless to convince us of his juvenile carefree innocence. As in James, the boy becomes manipulative in the growing awareness of the power he wields over the adults around him and his lurking, silent presence during the partnership’s tiffs makes us uneasy. 

The foil is Britten’s hard-working deputy Imogen Holst played with sensible primness and light comedic touch by Jo Wickham who steals the show with a delightful performance. Less successful are the interpretations of Britten and Pears by, respectively, Gary Tushaw and Simon Willmont. Tushaw pushes aside the businesslike choirmaster enabling a young star performer in favour of a domineering maestro reduced to giggling infantilism in the presence of talented youth. Willmont plays a dependant devoted lover resentful of the intruding oik which is touching but somewhat wide of the mark for the promiscuous, effete and worldly Pears. 

Many of Britten’s works involve children. Shakespeare too worked with boys and the tradition of choristers performing on stage goes back to mediaeval times. In the Restoration theatre, girls were brought in, as Pepys records, to teach the boys the facts of life. Sexuality was never far from the surface. Kelly’s play refers to an incident in a broom cupboard with a wardrobe mistress. Puberty is a period of change and exploration, as Britten points out to the harumphing Pears. Hemmings, who married six times, went on to a successful career as an actor with credits in some fifty films. He stated that Britten behaved towards him with complete propriety. Kelly’s play is a thoughtful revisiting of the creative anxieties behind one of Britten’s greatest works. 

Turning the Screw continues at the King’s Head, Islington until Sunday 10 March…

Rick Jones

Hon Gen Sec