Lovesong of the Electric Bear (Above the Arts)

Matthew Parker directs Snoo Wilson’s trip through the life of codebreaker Alan Turing

Helen Evans, Laura Harling and William Hartley
Helen Evans, Laura Harling and William Hartley
© Scott Rylander

Snoo Wilson died two years ago without receiving his full due from the critics. He was a sort of alternative Tom Stoppard, just as clever, more surrealist, and a genius at compressing a wide range of interests – occultism, biology, genetics, space travel and the supernatural – into bizarrely imaginative dramatic constructs.

The great revelation in this European premiere of a penultimate play about the Bletchley codebreaker Alan Turing – given in the upstairs black box, once an actors’ bar, at the Arts – is how this apparent theatrical mayhem could be rigorously and satisfyingly structured.

The title carries echoes of that Alan Price song about Simon Smith and his amazing dancing bear. The Turing teddy, Porgy, played by Bryan Pilkington in a cuddly costume that makes him look like Christopher Biggins, is a childhood companion who accompanies him through school and university, undercover intelligence, even a drag queen cabaret and the creation of an onstage computer jungle of tapes and hieroglyphics.

At the same time, Ian Hallard‘s beautifully judged and athletic Turing is shown in emotional combat with the girl who loves him (Laura Harling), the authorities at Manchester University and the medical officer who subjugates his naked body underfoot while reading about the sinking of the Bismarck which Turing made possible.

The brilliant boffin is presented in Matthew Parker‘s nifty production as a patriotic hero whose profile doesn’t quite fit, with its Elgar quotations on the soundtrack framing the events of a gross indecency charge (triggered by a low life boyfriend) and the corrective "treatment" that keeps him out of gaol but drives him to the brink of suicide in 1954.

It’s a terrible story already recounted in the theatre by Hugh Whitemore in Breaking the Code (1984) starring Derek Jacobi and in last year’s film, The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch. But Wilson breaks up the narrative with unusual and witty diversions into theories of cryptology, the homophobic witch-hunts of J Edgar Hoover and the FBI, the humanity of animals and the computer, Artifical Intelligence and the simple, delightful relationship of the mathematician and his furry friend.

We also see Churchill painting, bicycle rides in Brittany, a poisoned apple for Snow White and a string of sharp cameo creations by Helen Evans, Chris Levens and William Hartley. Fundamental to the proceedings is Wilson’s belief that nothing is straightforward in life and that symptoms of this surrealism are best expressed in the theatre, which gives his legacy a better than good chance of enduring.

Lovesong of the Electric Bear runs upstairs at the Arts Theatre until 21 November.