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London Review: The Universal Machine

4 starsNew Diorama Theatre, Euston, London
Until 11 May (Tue - Sat only), 7:30pm (ends 9:30pm)
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Without doubt, The Universal Machine is an intelligent new musical; it could hardly be otherwise, when it’s built around the life of a Cambridge don.  Not just any don, but Alan Turing, the father of modern computing and a gay man who had the misfortune to live in an unenlightened age.  And when so much of the action is set during World War II, I can’t resist blagging a line from Churchill: it’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

The riddle, of course, is Turing himself.  Actor Richard Delaney fits perfectly into this demanding role, delivering a subtle, finely-balanced portrait – of a man who’s at odds with society, but who seems (at least outwardly) not to care.  His guileless conviction in his own intelligence, his unintentional callousness towards his mother, his gauche enthusiasm for a newly-found friend: all add up to a rounded portrayal, which deftly avoids the obvious perils of caricature.  We’re left with a sense of someone very human, yet someone very different from the rest of us… a walking conundrum which nobody, including Turing himself, was ever quite able to solve.

I also enjoyed the gently brain-teasing style of David Byrne’s script, which largely follows the chronology of Turing’s life but offers occasional riddling glimpses into his future.  I did feel, though, that Byrne had packed too much in, at least in the scenes before the interval.  It’s all a bit rushed: characters tend to blurt out their thoughts rather than reveal them, and when a crisis looms, Turing saves the day a little too quickly and easily.  Most of all, the over-arching high-concept comparison between the brain and a machine felt rather wasted – squeezed out by the self-imposed need to compress a man’s entire life into two hours of speeches and songs.

Ah yes, the songs.  Therein lies the mystery.  Why did they do it as a musical?  It’s a curious decision, but all things considered, I think I’m glad that they did.  Judith Paris in particular has a fine voice, which she deploys to striking effect as Turning’s heartbroken mother – and the license to break into song allows her swings of emotion that would quickly have overpowered a conventional play.  The set-piece numbers on each side of the interval also work well, neatly capturing the essence of Turing’s wartime service while glossing the dull grind of his daily routine.

But on the debit side, the lyrics occasionally felt forced, and there were a couple of moments when the schmaltzy side of the genre began to poke through.  My toes curled gently at an early ensemble piece, full of lofted crickets bats and swinging tennis racquets, which had a definite feel of an Obligatory Song And Dance Number.  And there’s a telling swerve at the very end, when a near-parodic moment of sunlit redemption gives way to a hesitant, downbeat, uncertain conclusion – incongruous for a musical, yet the only fitting finale to this particular play.
So finally, after the riddle and the mystery, we come to the enigma.  Specifically, the Enigma Machine: the hitherto-unbreakable code used by the German military, cracked by Turing (with quite a lot of help from his friends) in a hush-hush wartime operation at Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire.  I confess, I approached this material with some trepidation, because my own degree’s in mathematics and theatre-makers’ attempts to “do science” often leave me with my head in my hands.  But on this occasion, I can only nod approvingly.  The workings of the machine aren’t easy to explain – but explain them they did, and they explained them right.

So what are we left with, when we unwrap that final layer?  The Universal Machine doesn’t quite crack the code of Turing’s life – but it’s a brave attempt, balancing hard science with a still-relevant human story.  I’d like to have seen a few more of PIT Theatre’s trademark projections, and a couple of comic interludes didn’t quite hit the funny-bone for me.  But overall, it’s an honourable tribute to an extraordinary mind… delivered, as it surely had to be, in a way that’s out of the ordinary too.

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