Mathematician. War-hero. Victim. Alan Turing occupies a special place in British history. A brilliant mind, he cracked the Nazi’s enigma code, thus helping win the Second World War, and laid the groundwork for modern computer science. But he is also a victim of state repression. As a gay man, he was charged for indecency and chemically castrated. His legacy deserves to be honoured, as much as his treatment deserves to be condemned.
Breaking the Code is a perfectly adequate (if somewhat uninspired) tribute to the great man. The play benefits from slick production, a brilliant central performance, and a story that deserves appreciation. However, there is no escaping a heavy-handed script, a lack of emotional engagement, and a rather conservative approach to storytelling that lacked invention, risk, and ultimately, reward.
To speak of the positives, Matt Cranfield is magnificent as Turing. Cranfield’s portrayal is both humorous and humanising. He perfectly capturing a visionary thinker who, while not exactly given to social niceties, suffered loneliness, yearning, and a need to love and to be loved in kind. Joe Lewis also puts in a highly nuanced performance as Turing’s lover Ron, whose circumstances lead him to crime and cruelty.
The production design is excellent, from set pieces to sound. I really loved Mike Nower’s coded walls, as well as the tap-tap-tapping of punched numbers that connected each scene. Sheila Burbidge and Peter Westbury’s costuming is also very fine, showing great period detail as well as considered choices for the play’s broad cast of characters.
My real issue with Breaking the Code has more to do with what the play didn’t explore than what it did. While it’s true that Turing’s story is one that needs to be told, I wondered if the play could have taken a more inventive route – cutting out some of the (at times) lengthy dialogue for more active moments of empathy, pain, and revelation.
The revival of Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play is timely given the Bank of England’s recent announcement that Turing would be the face of a new £50 note. Aside from this context however, there is very little in the production that relates Turing’s story to the present moment.
Turing would have been fascinated (and maybe disturbed) by the world we now inhabit, particularly one in which artificial intelligence is a daily presence in our lives. Addressing these developments could have made for some interesting discussion. Breaking the Code, while skilfully executed, ended up being a little too conventional for a man who was anything but.
Breaking the Code is showing at Tower Theatre until 19 October. Tickets available from the website.