Review: The Universal Machine by PIT

The Universal MachinePIT are an extraordinary company who can always be relied on to do something different and The Universal Machine is certainly that. Dramatising the life of one of Britain’s most belatedly-recognised icons, Alan Turing, would be a daunting task on its own, but writer / director David Byrne has upped the ante by collaborating with composer Dominic Brennan to make a musical of the subject.

With The Universal Machine, PIT have matured as a company. They have always been exceptionally good at dark, acerbic and somewhat left-field comedy, and there were flashes of that still present, but this piece achieved a depth and sensitivity beyond that of their previous work. The life of such a complex man is huge subject to cover in two hours, but Byrne skilfully uses Sara Turing’s reaction to her son’s alleged suicide as a reference point from which to frame the story. He concentrates on Turing’s struggle to relate to real people as the essence of his fascination with thinking machines, and picks key moments to illustrate and illuminate the man, cleverly eschewing chronology in order to provide a brilliant insight into a complicated and tormented genius.

Richard Delaney is superb as Turing. Not only does he bear a remarkable natural resemblance to Turing himself, but his characterisation is detailed and sensitive and he manages to convey the man’s complexity and inability to connect with others, while still making him sympathetic and likeable. Judith Paris as Turing’s mother is the most confident and accomplished singer of the group, and she plays the wide range of Sara’s emotions with great assurance, but her exclusion from the ensemble distances the character from the story and, sadly, prevents her from gelling with the rest of the company.

Cecilia Colby as Joan, the only female cryptographer at Bletchley Park and the girl whom Turing almost marries, gives a stylish and intelligent performance and does great justice to the best musical number in the show, “Why not pretend to be normal” and Michael Faulkner is entirely credible in his contrasting roles as Turing’s boyhood infatuation and as the man who ultimately caused his downfall. Andy Mcleod gives an honest, unpretentious and warm performance as Max, Turing’s long-term colleague and the man who arguably knew him best and Leah Milner once more demonstrates her comic genius in her role as Turing’s landlady. Unfortunately, this hommage to PIT’s customary style doesn’t entirely fit with the more subtle nature of the rest of the piece, although it is great to see her display a much broader range of talent and, outside that cameo, she proves a versatile and valuable member of the ensemble.

However, as a musical, The Universal Machine doesn’t really work. There are a couple of numbers which show promise, such as the finale to Act One: “Building the Bombe” which captures the sense of imperative to solve the enigma code and encapsulates the mechanical nature of Turing’s solution; and his poignant solo towards the end of the show: Two Weeks a Year” in which he confesses his desperate unhappiness with the forced duality of his existence. But none of the songs are memorable enough to make you leave the theatre humming them, and the lyrics often seem too simplistic to warrant breaking the dramatic tension of the prose.

Despite this, as a piece of theatre The Universal Machine is a triumph. The show captures the era beautifully and its sparse set is well-designed and imaginatively used. It gets right to the core of the man, his triumphs and calumny, his dignity and vulnerability, without succumbing to the superficiality of many biographical pieces.  Despite all the hype about Turing in the media over the last twelve months, I never really felt I had a handle on who or what he was, until I saw The Universal Machine.  In the run-up to the opening, PIT adopted #FindingTuring as their twitter hashtag. Judging by last week’s performance, I would say they found him!

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