Monday, April 11, 2022





 Turner’s Turn. Geraldine Turner. A Memoir

New Holland Publishers. RRP: $32.99. Available from all good book retailers or online at

Book review by Peter Wilkins

I am sitting in the stalls of Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide. It is 1974. On stage Geraldine Turner is singing The Miller’s Son, Petra the maid’s number in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.  I am transfixed. The sheer force of energy, power of the voice and Turner’s passionate characterization send tingles down my spine. I am transported by Turner’s amazing talent. I am watching a musical theatre star in the making. Fifty years later, I am reading her memoir, Turner’s Turn. It’s a page turner. I am completely absorbed by Turner’s extraordinary life. Turner’s Turn is a fascinating account of a stellar career that has taken her to the very heights of her profession in musical theatre, film, television and the stage. But this memoir is more than an account of the achievements that have made her an icon of the Australian theatre and have seen her awarded for her contribution to the theatre with an OAM in 1983. Turners Turn is an honest, unexpurgated and at times shocking and surprising insight into Geraldine Turner, the young Brisbane girl from a dysfunctional family who became the toast of the theatre world from Sydney to London and New York

Born on June 23 1950 in Brisbane, Turner was the only daughter of a psychologically erratic mother and a father prone to alcohol fuelled outbursts. In a disarmingly frank memoir, Turner paints a rather bleak picture of her early childhood with her mother, father and four brothers. The house was filled with loud argument and the constant threat of violence. And yet, the irony in her reminiscence is inescapable. She spent her life seeking her mother’s approval. She remembers a kind and supportive father with whom she reconciled later in life. She recalls helping a brother financially after his release from prison for manslaughter. She recalls the enmity between her  brothers and the tense relationship with her eldest brother who contributed financially to her education and then resented the fact that she pursued a life in the theatre. She was appalled when he arrived at their father’s funeral with a car bootload of beer  It is not surprising in the light of her unhappy family life that Turner  would harbour a profound desire for approval, recognition and belonging.

 A true memoir is like a fine portrait – expressive, enlightening and captivating. Turner’s Turn is all this and much more. Theatre lovers will delight in the anecdotes of her long and illustrious career, savouring the triumphs such as her musical theatre appearances in Anything Goes, Chicago and Oliver. Her friendships with legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim and Broadway director Hal Prince led to her roles in Into The Woods, Sweeney Todd and Company. She was also the first person in the world to record Sondheim’s songs in The Great Sondheim Songbook. Readers will be astonished at the prodigious output of musicals, TV, stage and film appearances over five decades. Nor is her work confined to the mainstage. Turner talks of the wonderful receptions of regional audiences during her many and varied tours of shows including her own show Turner’s Turn from which the title of her memoir is taken. What is immediately apparent is a professionals love and respect for her audiences who have applauded and nourished her talent over so many years. Pathos reverberates in her description of life with her agent, Bill Shanhan. This was a very special friendship. Shanahan, the agent to the stars, was a mentor and an advisor as well as an agent, Her life could be described as “Life before Bill. Life with Bill and Life after Bill. His premature death is one of the most painful experiences of her life.

Audiences who were fortunate enough to see Turner on stage or on film or on the television will remember with fond nostalgia the impact that Turner had on their lives. Aspiring performers will profit from her experience and her advice to be true to themselves, to love their art and value their audience. Tuner does not shy from the bitter truths or painful episodes, both private, like the death of three brothers or the cancellation of Gypsy which denied her the opportunity to play Gypsy’s mother Rose, a character so very much like her own mother. The bitter parting of ways with the Sydney Theatre Company Board after a falling out with the artistic director also has left her with  a loss of trust. The chair still has not sent her a letter following her departure.

What comes through time and time again from her early childhood to the obstacles that occur during her career is her remarkable resilience.  “I am always at my best when my back is against the wall.” Turner writes. Like Nancy, whom she played in Oliver, Turner sees herself  as “vulnerable, loud and raucous, kind, loving, playful, caring with children.” And yet she claims that she prefers dogs to people. It is difficult to believe. After all, who would answer a friend’s plea to cross Sydney in the early hours of the morning and sing him to sleep by singing Sondheim favourites. Who else would entertain a host of friends with long lunches? Who else would be such a generous mentor to emerging talents?. There is no attempt in this absorbing memoir to hide the contradictions and the complexities that have been so much a part of her nature.

It is such complexity of Nature that has made Turner’s life a textbook for survival.  She survived her fraught family life to become an icon of the Australian stage. She survived the “humping crying” of the cruel treatment by a particular nun at school,. She bounced back from being rejected for the role of Eva Peron in Evita by composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber and director Trevor Nunn. She overcame stage-fright with the advice of mentor Murray Fay who taught her to utter in the wings, “I am beautiful. I am talented. I have a secret”  and take that secret to share with her audience.. Moments of pain, moments of grief, moments of self-doubt and moments of triumph are unconditionally revealed in this warts and all memoir..

Turner’s Turn has something for everyone. Theatre lovers will delight in the reminiscences of Turner’s theatrical achievements on stage, in film and on television over five decades. Longevity and survival are trademarks of an extraordinary talent. For those who may have lived through her career and are familiar with many of the people mentioned, there is also a fair share of fascinating goss without malice. Many readers will identify with the challenges of family problems and find strength in Turner’s courageous resolve. For the showbiz hopefuls there is an abundance of advice. “Embrace the randomness of performing” Turner advises. “Rely on technique and know it is there. Dig deep. Don’t ever get ahead of yourself Forgive your imperfections and always be in the moment”

Turner freely admits to being opinionated and outspoken, but she believes that any reputation for being difficult is unfair. “I hate fence-sitters and injustice” she says in her defence. It may come as a surprise that the girl with the big singing voice is powerfully vocal as an advocate for justice. She tells of her time as the Federal President of the Actors’ Union, the MEAA (Media and Entertainment Alliance), her involvement in protest marches against the Iraq war and her advocacy for a performing arts centre in the Southern Highlands where she lives with her husband and two dogs. In truth she writes, “I am marshmallow, insecure and easily hurt” but Turner admits to  possessing  bluster and resilience that she gained from her mother. In truth she regards herself as a very reasonable person and  a fiercely loyal colleague.

I fear that Australia is still the victim of cultural cringe when it comes to the lack of biographies and memoirs of our cultural heroes and heroines. It is a simple task to find a book written by or about British and American performing artists. Geraldine Turner’s autobiography is remarkable for its scope, its humanity and its accessibility to people from all walks of life. Anyone who has struggled to overcome one’s environment, or dreamed of becoming a performer or suffered self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy should have Turner’s book on their bookshelf to entertain, inform and educate. In the final chapter titled Looking For the Light, Turner has found peace with who she is, her past and her present peaceful family life with husband Brian and her two divine groodles, Pearl and Claude. Friends like Hal Prince have helped her to find the light with their support, love and advice. 

In Turner’s Turn Geraldine Turner passes on the lessons learned, the love shared and the wisdom earned to generations of performers and audiences to come. Turner’s Turn turns on the light that shines in everybody’s life.