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Breaking the Code: Royal Exchange - Review

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
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OK Computer
The Pet Shop Boys called their 2014 Proms performance about Alan Turing, A Man from the Future. Speaking to The Guardian at the time, Neil Tennant explained that they first heard of Turing, the outstanding mathematician and Enigma code-cracker, who also happened to be gay, in the mid-1980s, after seeing Hugh Whitemore's play Breaking the Code.

A Man from the Future would be an apt subtitle for Breaking the Code . It was first performed in 1986 when homosexual acts were no longer illegal, as they had been during Turing's life. However, the age of consent was 21 and the infamous Clause 28 was two years away. It stated that local authorities must not "intentionally promote homosexuality".

Alan Turing, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Daniel Rigby as Alan Turing, Royal Exchange Theatre

Now Breaking the Code is being staged in Manchester, where Turing worked at the university. References to places such as Oxford Road station, therefore, have an immediate resonance. Turing - often referred to as the 'father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence' - famously built the Bombe at Bletchley Park, the Second World War code-breaking centre. Turing's machine played an invaluable role in achieving the seemingly impossible –cracking the German Enigma ciphers and making the Nazi's military plans known in advance to Churchill.

Breaking the Code's scenes flip between key chapters in Turing's life, such as his ill-fated school-friendship with Christopher Morcom. The play starts with Turing reporting a robbery and the detective attempting to decipher how much Turing's version of events is wholly accurate.

Most of the revelations in Turing's story will be familiar to anyone who saw the 2014 film The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. However, the poignancy of Turing's life, which, at times, verges on a Shakespearean Tragedy, is not lessened by knowing how it ends.

This is in no small measure due to Daniel Rigby's performance as Turing. The actor is on stage for the duration of the play and he fully inhabits and channels Turing's mixture of vulnerability, fidgety impatience and apprehension. He also conveys his determination and candour, which, unintentionally, sometimes causes hurt to those close to Turing, particularly his mother.

Geraldine Alexander gives a touching performance as Sara Turing. Her son's inner and private life often seem as impenetrable to he as his mathematical monologues.

Alan Turing, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
Alan Turing memorial statue in Sackville Park, Manchester

The production has many laugh-out-loud moments. I particularly enjoyed Raad Rawi's facial expressions when, in his role as Dillwyn Knox, he turns from interviewer into audience as Turing, arriving at Bletchley Park, rhapsodises about the future of computing and the 'Universal Machine'.

The design by Ben Stones and Richard Howell, makes effective use of a matrix, formed by tubes of fluorescent light. This conveys Turing's advances in computing but also the claustrophobia of the police interview room.

The soundtrack is a treat for Radiohead fans. Sound Designer, Emma Laxton, weaves in instrumental versions of the band's classics, such as No Surprises from OK Computer.

The only times at which the play's energy drops slightly is in the inevitable passages of exposition. This is partly, again, because Turing's story is more familiar to us than in 1986. However, this is offset by clever dramatic devices such as when Turing reveals official secrets about his wartime work to Nikos, his Greek lover, who does not speak English. When Nikos speaks to Turing in Greek, it is as though the great mathematician gets a taste of what it is like for others to listen to his own theorising.

Breaking the Code is a play about social history, mathematics and computing. However, it is primarily about human relationships and the codebreaking which human communication requires us to engage in. No matter how many problems the dramatists and protagonists solve, there is always another one waiting in the wings. You sense that Turing would not have wanted it any other way.

Alan Turing, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
A blue plaque marking Turing's home at Wilmslow, Cheshire

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Why? A play about computers and codes, which has a human heart
Phone: 0161 833 9833
Where: St Ann’s Square, Manchester, M2 7DH
Cost: From £10
Your Comment
Sounds like an amazing show!
by Jay Johnson (score: 3|1368) 1897 days ago
Thanks Jay. Yes, it is definitely a play which deserves to be better known! Hope you might get chance to see it.
by David Keyworth (score: 2|135) 1897 days ago
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