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OTG's production of Hugh Whitemore's Breaking the Code played at the Theatre at the Old Fire Station in December 2011. Reviews appeared in Oxford Times, Daily Information, and Oxford Prospect.

Ron instinctively fears that Turing is exaggerating about his Colossus.

A gallery of pictures from the production is available here.

OXFORD TIMES - James Benefield

To celebrate the centenary of his birth next year, Oxford Theatre Guild look at the tragic life of Enigma machine decoder, computing pioneer and eventual social pariah Alan Turing in their dignified production of High Whitemore’s eighties play Breaking the Code.

A sprawling collection of moments from Turing’s childhood through to his death, the play gives a sense that Turing was ahead of his time. In times of reserve, so-called decency and emotional repression, Turing (Joseph Kenneway) is depicted as wearing his heart on his sleeve. In his professional life, he discusses his suspicion of patriotism at his interview for the Government Code and Cypher School, for his crucial work in the Second World War. In his private life, he frankly admits his homosexuality to those closest to him at a time when such acts were imprisonable offences.

Aside from the story, what is most striking here is what is omitted. Although there are explanations of aspects of his work, this is by no means a comprehensive account of how Turing helped to win the war. Neither is it a dissection of his inner turmoil. It’s also not about bygone attitudes to homosexuality or about Turing’s pioneering work in computers. If anything, the play encourages us to go away and read further about his life and times. It leaves out, or touches lightly on, reconstructions of key events (including some more pivotal ones). We hear just enough to keep us interested.

In a simple staging by the Guild, what really stands out is the acting. Director Kevin Elliott is careful not to make this hagiographic. Kenneway depicts Turing as a socially awkward, but otherwise stunningly assured man. He gets excellent support, especially from Wayne Brown as Turing’s sometime lover Ron. A little static at the beginning, the actors free up for a second half which does occasionally veer into melodrama. But, for the most part, this is a restrained, sensitive and thought-provoking evening.

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DAILY INFORMATION - Kathryn (DI reviewer)

Breaking the Code is Hugh Whitemore’s biographical drama about Alan Turing, the mathematician famous for helping to break the Enigma codes at Bletchley Park during the Second World War. Turing quietly boasts in the play that he won the war for England – well, his contribution was absolutely vital. Breaking the Code is also about the unwritten code of the time on homosexuality: Turing breaks this code too by talking openly about his sexuality which at that time was a crime, 'Gross Indecency'. A quiet, bookish man, he gets involved with a younger man, a petty thief, which eventually lands him in court. His homosexuality makes him a problem in the eyes of the government and so, in spite of the contribution he made to the war effort, he is no longer trusted. He died two years later and his death was put down to suicide – although his mother and others maintained that this was not in character.

This is a fascinating play and one which makes huge demands on the actor playing Turing. Apart from one scene near the end with Turing’s mother and the police inspector, Turing is on stage the whole time as the plot jumps backwards and forwards in time, from his childhood to middle age (Turing died just before his 42nd birthday). This Joseph Kenneway performs with quiet dignity, chewing his nails and stuttering at times, but passionate about his mathematics and the interesting problems it poses. I note that he even looks a bit like the real man. The other actors support him well: Ross the inspector (Chris Laybourn) is a stickler for rules – rules which did not exist at Bletchley, where genius could, and did, reign supreme and untamed. The dignified Knox, played by Tim Eyres, is a closet homosexual – the route Turing chose not to take. The ‘boys’ that Turing takes home with him do not understand him and it is one of these, Ron, played with aplomb by Wayne Brown, who gets him into trouble. The women in his life bring out different sides of his character, his mother (Judith Fantozzi) supporting him without understanding him, and Pat (Cate Field) supporting him in spite of understanding him.

I had a couple of problems with the direction: at one time, Turing and Cate sit on the ground with their back to the main part of the theatre, out of sight and almost out of hearing to me. At times, too, the lighting did not seem to be directed onto the main characters. It also seemed a pity to me – interesting though it was to hear a bit about the director – to have had no information on the playwright himself, Hugh Whitemore, in the programme.

That said, I think this is a play worth seeing and Oxford Theatre Guild should be recommended for their production.

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OXFORD PROSPECT - Julia Gasper

I was delighted to see the new Theatre open at the Old Fire Station on Tuesday evening. The old one, shabby though it was, had seen many a fascinating and rewarding dramatic production. The building now has been refurbished as a result of the government’s Places of Change Programme and houses the Crisis Skylight Centre as well as the new theatre. Everything is bright, colourful and cheerful, and with the Christmas trees and decorations sparkling, it gave us a warm welcome. Breaking the Code is the play chosen by the Oxford Theatre Guild to launch the new theatre and it is well up to their usual high standards of production. Based on the book by Andrew Hodges, “Alan Turing: the Enigma,” the play tells the life story of this shy and stammering mathematician who played such an important part in World War II. Turing was among the team at Bletchley Park who broke the German Enigma code, in which all the enemy messages were sent. Yet despite getting the OBE, he was later subjected to a humiliating prosecution for his homosexual behaviour, and his death a few years later was probably suicide.

It may be that the play slightly exaggerates Turing’s role in breaking the code. Actually a team of Polish decrypters had been working on the project for seven years before the war and their groundwork was crucial. Then there was a lucky break in 1941, when a British destroyer, the HMS Bulldog, captured an Enigma encoding machine from a German U-boat before sinking it. The acquisition was kept top secret. Finally, the Germans did make some mistakes: one was that on Hitler’s birthday all officers sent him messages of greeting and as they all ended “Heil, Hitler!” this provided another useful clue for the Bletchley team. So Turing was one of a team, but nevertheless he was an invaluable asset and his later work made a substantial contribution to the development of the modern computer. The play has a streak of really dry humour. It also shows the pathos of Turing’s lonely lifestyle, picking up youths in pubs and then finding they have rifled his wallet before leaving. We wince as a policeman questions him about all the details of this encounter. To us now it seems that the “gross indecency” is in having to tell a third person exactly what happened.

Joseph Kenneway’s performance in the demanding role of Turing is an impressive one, and the others who stood out were Wayne Brown as Ron and Tim Eyres as Knox, the Bletchley boss. Kevin Elliot, the director, is to be congratulated on this production and I look forward to many more now that this venue has risen from the ashes. I think that the people who campaigned, forty years ago, to save the Old Fire Station as a community arts centre, would be pleased and happy to see it now.

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