Breaking the Code

Hugh Whitemore, based on Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges
Salisbury Playhouse
Salisbury Playhouse

Edward Bennett in Breaking the Code Credit: Helen Murray
Edward Bennett and Caroline Harker Credit: Helen Murray
Joey Phillips and Edward Bennett Credit: Helen Murray

It’s an opening scene we’re familiar with, aren’t we? I mean, you’ve only got to switch on the telly any time of day or night and there you have it, the police sergeant, the aggrieved victim, a mystery to be solved and a miscreant to be apprehended.

Only the setting’s unfamiliar. The whole floor, desk and table tops, and those big, suspended screens, are covered with numbers and letters which we ordinary folk, ignorant of the esoteric workings of the code-breaker’s mind, can only regard with total incredulity. The dozens of empty cardboard boxes scattered underneath the main structure only add to the complexities which form such a significant factor in the play.

We’re still in the extended main house, as in last week’s Relatively Speaking’, with audience on all four sides of the auditorium, and the theatre is packed.

The play begins with the police sergeant (Ian Redford) interviewing Alan Turing (Edward Bennett) about the apparent theft of his money. During the course of the interview, we discover a number of things about Alan which seem to merit further investigation and for this we need to go back into his childhood and beyond.

So how is it that Edward Bennet, an adult, is able to convince us that he is, in fact, a young boy? Yet he does. Is it because we are able to sympathise with his situation? Those of us who were evacuated, torn from our homes and sent to live with strangers during WW2, must have felt much as Alan felt as his parents set off for India at the beginning of each school year, abandoning him to the rigours and punishments which were the normal routine at Sherborne, as at other public schools.

Of course, in 1923, when Alan was eleven, there was no such thing as Gay Pride or same-sex marriage and the Sexual Offences Act, which first permitted same-sex relationships between consenting adults, didn’t come into being until 1967.

His schoolfriend and first real love, Christopher Morcom (Hubert Burton who also gives a stunning performance as Nikos—in Greek, would you believe?), reminds us that back in his youthful days the future could not necessarily be counted on. And one feels for Pat Green (Louise Calf) when her attempts to inspire romantic interest in Alan are gently rejected.

Not a lot of sympathy, though, at least not at first, for Sara Turing, Alan’s mother (Caroline Harker). While Alan’s brother John is safely on his career path towards a respectable legal career, Alan, though he has an indisputably brilliant mind, albeit one occupied with matters which are incomprehensible to most folk, shows no signs of conforming to his mother’s upper-class pretensions. He finds his haven in numbers, the more remote and obscure the better. And when he comes under the influence of Dillwyn Knox (Julian Firth) and John Smith (Fraser Wilson) at Bletchley Park and begins work on the Enigma Code, his destiny as the hero he has since became is already mapped. Only nobody knew.

So that OBE? Is that all a grateful nation could offer him? No earldom? Not even a peerage? He who actually invented “a universal machine that could be made to learn, to perform any task the human brain can carry out? To whom life was a thrilling experiment whose influence is still felt worldwide?” Who was largely responsible for the first computer? To whom it ”wasn’t the code that mattered but where you go from there”?

No. It was all kept secret, wasn’t it?

Only the scandal emerged.

And a statue in Manchester. He’s sitting down on a park bench. The memorial reads:

"Father of Computer Science,
Mathematician, Logician,
Wartime Codebreaker,
Victim of Prejudice."

Thank you, Salisbury Playhouse. It’s been an inspirational performance.

Reviewer: Anne Hill

Are you sure?