Theatre Review: BREAKING THE CODE – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester


Intelligent, multi-layered and incredibly touching, BREAKING THE CODE explores the life and career of Alan Turing

Alan Turing’s story is certainly a fascinating one. In his mere 41 years, the British mathematician and pioneer of computer science not only helped to break the German Enigma code at Bletchley Park during World War II but also created one of the world’s first computer designs before his untimely suicide in 1954 following chemical castration for homosexual activity. More importantly, he was a national hero, a hero who died misunderstood, forgotten and alone as Robert Hastie’s revival of Hugh Whitemore’s play BREAKING THE CODE touchingly shows.

Written by Whitemore in 1986 and based loosely on the book ALAN TURING: THE ENIGMA by Andrew Hodges, BREAKING THE CODE tells the story of the life and career of Alan Turing. The bio-drama which takes place in the years from 1929 to 1954, explores who Turing was, what happened to him and why, intertwining his most heroic hour with the story of his betrayal and neglect.

Considering Hastie’s production is the first major revival of BREAKING THE CODE in 30 years, the production feels startlingly contemporary. The script is funny and compassionate, thematically linking Turing’s cryptographic activities with his attempts to grapple with his homosexuality.

The innovative staging is also marvel. Scene changes are done fluidly with the actors simply changing a jacket or removing a shirt to represent a shift in time. Richard Howell’s stunning lighting design, which sees strips of white lighting descend from the ceiling, also marks a change in location as well as heightening the dramatic impact of the play.

BAFTA winning Daniel Rigby (ERIC AND ERNIE) delivers an impressive performance as Turing, embodying the man’s physical characteristics, such as his nervous stammer and compulsive nail biting, as well as his passion and exuberance when exploring scientific topics.

Elsewhere, Geraldine Alexander delivers a finely nuanced performance as Alan’s mother Sara, while Natalie Dew is likeable and engaging as Pat, the young woman who falls in love with Alan.

While Whitemore’s script does an impressive job of balancing Turing’s ruthlessly logical mind with his instinct for human honesty, the long and daring theatrical monologues occasionally slow down the drama and are likely to befuddle some of the audience members.

The play also concentrates on Turing’s homosexuality as the major feature of his life to the exclusion of his possible autism and depression, which arguably have more to do with the themes of his work.

That said, there is plenty to like about this intelligent, multi-layered and incredibly touching production with Hastie delivering an intellectually challenging and entertaining revival of a play that has stood the test of time.

4 out of 5 stars

BREAKING THE CODE runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 19 November.