'The Universal Machine review' or 'Ghost in the machine.'
The Universal Machine, David Byrne
New Diorama Theatre, 19th April 2013
Written for Time Out
Last year marked the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing, the daddy of computer scientists. Turing was working at Bletchley Park, helping to decode Germany’s Enigma ciphers, years before Bill Gates or Steve Jobs were conceived. He should have been rich and famous. But he committed suicide in 1954, following his charges for ‘gross indecency’ (he was homosexual). 'The Universal Machine' tells his story.
Unfortunately, New Diorama artistic director David Byrne has chosen to tell Turing's tale via the medium of song. It doesn't really work. The tunes bubble up at the strangest of moments, emphasising the whimsical and sidestepping the emotional. There's a very long song about cricket, and Judith Paris, as Turing's mother, spends much of her time singing out the contents of letters.
Composer Dominic Brennan only properly connects with the story with his tonal, electronic compositions. One urgent song repeatedly blasts out the same lyrics: ‘The bomb, the bomb, the bomb!’ The tension of wartime – and the pressure Turing must have felt while working at Bletchley Park – pulses threateningly throughout this sparse number.
Yet despite some significant flaws in both the script and score, this is still a dynamic and imaginative production. The actors are always on their toes, playing multiple roles and even doubling up as stage manager. Richard Delaney handles a difficult central role with considerable sophistication. His Alan Turing is an engaging soul yet always just outside of things, removed from the human beings he could never quite compute.