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The Universal Machine

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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This new musical for a cast of seven by David Byrne and Dominic Brennan tells the story of Alan Turing’s life and work. It follows him from being a misfit at Sherborne, doing his ground breaking and life saving work at Bletchley Park during the war and to his death from cyanide poisoning in 1954 after arrest for homosexuality.

The first puzzle is why is it a musical? Apart from allowing some nice ensemble work (especially during the “Why not pretend to be normal?” number) the music adds almost nothing to the drama and some of the intonation in the singing is decidedly wobbly. Brennan’s music is good enough in its way and well played by musical director Patrick Stockbridge on keyboard, occasionally joined by cast members Phillipa Hogg and Cecilia Colby on violins, but it feels like an unnecessary extra. And that effect is heightened by the show’s failure to set the scene at the beginning with a musical number.

The acting, however, is generally good, especially in the second half when the war has ended and Turing (Richard Delaney) is struggling with normal life. Delaney makes a good fist of the troubled, tousled Turing as a schoolboy and later as the anguished adult dealing with the police and his distraught mother (Judith Paris), although he is no singer. Paris, who has a fine, rich burgundy-deep voice, sings more than any other character and conveys a real sense of the agony of being mother to a son in trouble. Leah Milner, a very engaging character actor, is good fun as Turing’s forthright, intrusive landlady.

The plotting is quirky in this curate’s egg of a show. Time moves on jerkily and without explanation which is dramatically disorientating. One minute, for example, Turing and his friend are just off to Kings College, Cambridge and the next he has graduated and is a Cambridge don being headhunted for secret cryptographical work. It’s a bit like reading a book from which a few chapters have been crudely chopped. And why do we see Judith Paris lamenting her son’s death and denying that it was suicide before we’ve seen the sequence of events which preceded his death?

-Susan Elkin


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