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Breaking the Code

Hugh Whitemore
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre

Hugh Whitemore's play was first produced in 1986 when Alan Turing was little-known, long before his name had been attached to streets, university buildings and monuments throughout Manchester and become a cause célèbre for those seeking to overturn the convictions for "gross indecency" for gay men prior to 1967. In fact it was only ten years earlier that Turing had been revealed as a major figure in wartime codebreaking.

This was also a time when computers that fulfilled Turing's dream of an electronic device that could tackle many different types of task if given the right instructions were in many homes (including mine) but certainly not in the pockets of almost everyone sat in the audience. However, we have still not quite got the machine intelligence he predicted we would have by 2000.

Thirty years on, Turing is well-known, particularly in Manchester, as the codebreaker who helped to win the Second World War, the father of modern computing and a man who was subjected to "chemical castration" rather than face prison for having sex with a another man in the privacy of his own home. Of course, many of the technological advances he mentions have come about and moved on further, even since 1986. This doesn't spoil the play by any means, but it changes how we view it.

Robert Hastie's production resists the knowing wink that would be so easy as we look back thirty and sixty years with greater knowledge and hindsight. His perfectly paced production presents the pieces of the puzzle of Turing's life in Whitemore's mixed-up chronology for us to judge for ourselves, though thankfully they aren't as difficult to piece together as the Enigma code.

Daniel Rigby gives a formidable performance as one of the greatest mathematicians this country has ever produced: certain in his extraordinary ability but awkward and rather naïve in life. He is supported by an impressive cast including Geraldine Alexander as his mother Sara, Natalie Dew as the fellow codebreaker who fell in love with him (the fictional Pat Green, but based on a couple of real characters), Raad Rawi as his ageing boss at Bletchley Park Dillwyn Knox and Phil Cheadle as the sympathetic but duty-bound police officer.

The design by Ben Stones uses flown strip lights to outline various rooms as the cast move around the desk and chairs that clearly create every location. Sound designer Emma Laxton links the scenes together with piano versions of the introductions to Radiohead songs (from their 1997 album OK Computer—geddit?). All of this is simple but very effective.

Although this story is better-known now, it is still one worth telling, of a man obsessed with the beauty of mathematics who changed our world significantly but went from a personal favourite of Winston Churchill to a convicted criminal because of his sexuality.

This production at the Royal Exchange tells this story very well in a fascinating piece of theatre.

Reviewer: David Chadderton