Code review = a quality assurance activity
I’ve been doing a bit of work lately on the portraits which appear on banknotes. This feels like something that has always been around but in fact less than twenty of the great and good have been available in our purses and wallets with figures from the arts, sciences, politics, economics and social reform all being featured. It all began in 1970 when a £20 note was issued featuring William Shakespeare and recent developments have been instituted as a result of the introduction of polymer notes. The latest change is the subject of a play I recently saw. Here’s my review:
The introduction of Alan Turing’s portrait onto the nation’s polymer £50 note from 2021 goes a long way towards furthering the rehabilitation of one of the UK’s foremost geniuses. His work in computer coding arguably provided us with much needed intelligence in the Second World War and it is a moot point whether modern day communication and calculation would be quite so developed as it is without his insights. It is perhaps questionable whether I could even be writing this review in the way I am or for you to have the facility to be able to read it without the breakthroughs which Turing made. Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 play Breaking The Code may have been partially responsible for helping Turing’s late rehabilitation and recognition to gain traction and so Tower Theatre’s revival of the play is definitely very timely.
It is quite an episodic piece and does not subscribe to the usual flow of chronological narrative but this somehow seems in keeping with the subject matter. One moment Turing is a schoolboy in awe of best friend Christopher’s intellectual superiority; the next we see him at his Bletchley interview or wrestling with his sexuality. The scenes of his life pile up and at first seem as incomprehensible as his beloved computer code. But gradually a pattern emerges and the key areas of his life are forensically examined. And while the play touches on Turing’s work in breaking the German High Command’s Enigma Code it is equally an examination of the moral and societal code which Turing challenged through his, then illegal, homosexual activity. 35 years ago when Whitemore’s play premiered, the piece was probably still quite contentious. If it is less so now it still has the power to demonstrate just how far we have moved on, both in our acceptance of so-called non-conformity and in the technology we have at our constant disposal.
The structure of the piece also means that the locations conjured up frequently need to change. Thus we move from Bletchley Park to Turing’s lodgings to his family home to police station and even to Greece. All this was achieved with little more than black wooden blocks against screens covered in computer code in director Mike Nower’s own set design. The addition of a scattering of period props, some nicely designed lighting states (Samuel Littley) and some very apposite costumes (Sheila Burbidge & Peter Westbury) bring us reasonably swiftly to new times and places in order to watch this modern tragedy unfold.
At the heart of this tragedy, of course, sits Alan Turing and the fully realised and rounded performance of Matt Cranfield did this complex character absolute justice. The stammer which ebbed and flowed in complete accordance with Turing’s state of mind was masterfully done and never felt like a caricature. His use of body language was exemplary and I found the portrayal completely believable as regards the various life stages which were being put across. Even Turing’s almost unbelievable naivety in his dealings with the police managed to remain credible. And Cranfield’s delivery of the text was mesmerising, particularly in some quite hefty monologues which Whitemore gives his protagonist. Even when I didn’t quite fully (!!) understand the complex mathematics being elucidated I felt that the actor did … and that is no mean feat to pull off and still take an audience with you.
The production was well served by a strong cast of supporting performers playing some key figures in Turing’s life. Sarah Nower as his mother, Richard Pedersen as his Bletchley boss, Martin Mulgrew as the investigating detective and Ian Recordon as a slightly shady intelligence officer all brought a wealth of experience and stage presence to their roles. For me, though, I was particularly impressed by the work of a couple of the younger performers. Joe Lewis as casual pick up Ron Miller was very good as the catalyst which started Turing’s downfall. With his easy charm it wasn’t difficult to see why Turing fell from grace quite so quickly. Meanwhile Rebecca Allen as Bletchley colleague and Turing confidante Pat Green provided some delightfully understated emotional moments as the girl whom Turing almost married. Completing the well-chosen cast were Isaac Insley and Pablo Tranchel as the two younger men with whom Turing found some sense of peace at either end of his too short life.
I wonder how much more quickly technology would have advanced had Turing survived to continue his work, though without the urgency of the War to drive things along it is debatable whether such rapid advances would have been made. Like much else about Turing’s life we can only gaze in awe at his intellect and speculate on what might have been. And the play ends on a note of such speculation. Just why Turing chose to report the minor burglary which led to his chemical castration and ultimate downfall is an enigma and Whitemore and this production, quite rightly leave things open-ended. In the final moments before he dies we see Turing consuming a poisoned apple (actually a hotly contested event among his biographers) foisted upon him by that most wicked of witches, 1950’s society. This is played out to the strains of “Someday My Prince Will Come” from Disney’s Snow White – apparently Turing’s favourite film. If his speculative royal companion never quite made it in time, there is perhaps a delicious irony in the fact that Turing will now be regularly sharing a space on our currency with real royalty.*
The selection process for portraits on bank notes is actually quite a complicated affair involving committees and focus groups (see here if you’re interested) Given that Turing’s work has led to some of the technological advances which have hastened the decline of the use of hard cash perhaps the selectors too have a sense of irony.