BREAKING THE CODE
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Until 19th Nov
By Hugh Whitemore
Directed by Robert Hastie
Review by Brian Gorman
Local lad Daniel Rigby (born in Cheadle) steps into some mighty big shoes here, taking on the role of the iconic Alan Turing (the father of modern day computers, and renowned for helping to save millions of lives during WW2). Going up against thespian titans Derek Jacobi and Benedict Cumberbatch, he more than holds his own in a restrained, unshowy, beautifully subtle characterisation. Hugh Whitemore’s play tells the tragic tale of a naïve genius brought down by an ungrateful society that would rather poke its collective nose into our bedrooms, than accept the individual characteristics of its people.
It’s 1952, and Turing is interrogated and arrested by the Manchester constabulary, after reporting a burglary at his Wilmslow home. Unfortunately for Turing, his honesty about the prime suspect (a young ‘bit of rough’ he’d been having an affair with) proves to be his undoing. With homosexuality a criminal act, he is sent for trial, and forced to accept chemical castration (in the form of Oestrogen injections) instead of serving time behind bars. The sympathetic interrogating officer (an excellent Phil Cheadle; firm-handed but fair) has no option but to take action when Turing blurts out the truth of his illicit relationship with the 18 year-old delinquent, but is keen to know more about his enigmatic (no pun intended) prisoner. Turing relates the story of his wartime work for the government, how he was tasked with deciphering the German Enigma code (which he cracked), and how the work of he and his colleagues at Bletchley Park helped to reduce the war by an estimated 2 years, saving millions of lives.
Artwork by Brian Gorman
Ben Stones’ set is simple, a bare wooden floor with a couple of chairs and a desk. Illuminated rods are occasionally lowered into place to create a skeleton frame suggesting various acting spaces. It’s pretty perfunctory, and adds little to the atmosphere. The same goes for Richard Howell’s lighting, which is basic, unflattering, and reminded me of 1980s American television movies. We could have done with a little more warmth, perhaps some period tunes, as Turing bumbles about like a schoolboy Alan Bennett, but there’s little sense of time or place. After all, The Royal Exchange is only about ten minutes’ walk from the place on Oxford Road, where Turing met Ron Miller (his bit of rough), and that particular area is pretty atmospheric with the cobblestones leading down to the iconic Salisbury pub by Oxford Road Railway Station.
Geraldine Alexander is perfect as Turing’s mousey mother, fussing over her son’s lack of basic hygiene, and quietly accepting his eccentricities. Raad Rawi almost steals the show as the wild-haired, kindly Dilwyn Knox (Turing’s mentor), and Harry Egan (as Turing’s duplicitous teen-age lover, Ron Miller) exudes macho cockiness, and looks like a young, skinny Gary Neville. Natalie Dew, as Turing’s love-sick colleague, has little to work with. Mark Oosterveen’s slick, sly, black-hatted spook harks back to the entertaining character played by Jeremy Northam in the factually-challenged 2001 film ‘Enigma’, and provides much-needed comic relief.
Robert Hastie’s direction is unfussy, unshowy, and echoes Turing’s personality with its hesitancy and lack of energy. But, like Rigby’s Turing, bursts into occasional life, providing moments of exciting verbal gymnastics such as Turing’s lengthy speech about electronic brains, and some sparkling exchanges with Rawi’s Knox character.
Turing’s tale is an epic tragedy, and I really wanted to enjoy this production far more than I did. Maybe the story was too familiar, or the recent Cumberbatch film, ‘The Imitation Game’, too fresh in the memory. This was a dull-looking, stripped-back affair, but could have been so much more thrilling.