Review by Daz Gale
New musicals based on real people and events can be a wonderful thing. Not only do they bring these stories to new generations, but they can also be a fitting tribute to their legacy, even in extreme circumstances having real-world repercussions. The most obvious example of this is the roaring success of Operation Mincemeat which has now led to a plaque being unveiled in honour of one of the people the show is based on. The next legendary person from history hoping to get a bite of that apple is Alan Turing as the latest version of his musical biography of his life heads to London, but with so much expectation against it, given Turing’s legacy, would this be a war they could win?
Alan Turing - A Musical Biography began its life in 2021, selling out the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2022. Since then, it has toured theatres across the UK including previous stops in London. Each time, the show has been tweaked somewhat, now on its 4th version. It tells the story of the extraordinary life of Alan Turing whose code-breaking brain saved approximately fourteen million lives in World War 2. As well as his phenomenal achievements, he was also prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts, dying two years later. His legacy remains more than 70 years later with a posthumous pardon granted in 2013 and his face now adorning the £50 note. To do a man as great as this justice is a tall order and one that feels almost impossible to get right, which may explain the problems I’m about to discuss.
By now, you will have seen the star rating at the top of this review and no, that is not a mistake. Regular visitors to this website will know one star reviews are not a regular occurrence here and are not a rating I give lightly. Sadly, in this situation, I couldn’t justify any other rating. Before I delve into the reasons I have given the show one star, it is important to know I take no pleasure in picking apart a show, always longing to be blown away by whatever I have just seen. This particular musical is one I have been following on social media for some time, getting excited by other people’s recounts of watching the show. I went into it expecting to fall in love and it pains me that I left feeling nothing but sadness at the missed opportunity here.
Having not seen the previous versions of Alan Turing - A Musical Biography, I can only go on from what I saw as I watched “version 4”. What felt mind-boggling to me throughout the 80 minutes of the play made more sense upon reading the programme afterward as I noted how much the show has changed in each of its previous versions. With different creatives coming on board, the voices of characters changing, and the general narrative structure completely being flipped on its head, instead of honing in on what should now be a well-rounded show, the end result feels messy, inconsistent, and suffering from too many different voices and creative choices which leads to an incohesive story.
Turing’s life was anything but boring, so it is surprising that this play failed to live up to that excitement. While attempting to cover key moments in his life from childhood trauma to his time in the war to the infuriating way he was treated for his homosexuality, these key beats are all present but surprisingly not given the weight they deserve. We only ever see glimpses of his process during the war with the majority of it told after it has happened, lacking any sort of accomplishment. As for his homosexuality, this is glossed over significantly – from a very brief hint at the loss of his childhood friend to being prosecuted, the show seems more content with focusing on a doomed heterosexual relationship he has, which felt jarring and not at all what you would want or expect from an Alan Turing musical.
There are many problems with the writing of the show, from the poor, plodding pacing to the underwritten characterisations, particularly in the supporting characters interacting with Alan. However, its biggest problem is its lack of emotion. Cold and soulless, it failed to connect on a basic human level. Tragedy and repressed feelings were not conveyed with anywhere near as much gravitas as they should. Without sounding too harsh, it felt like the creatives of the show had lost the basic understanding of connection and feeling when it comes to emotion and grief. The loss of Alan’s childhood friend was enough of a missed opportunity but it was the revelation of his own death later on that truly missed the mark, with a truly bizarre choice in staging. Somehow, with so much wealth of material at their disposal, this show managed to say nothing at all.
At times, I felt like the writing was better than I gave it credit for but suffered at the hands of staggeringly shocking direction. I always try to put a positive spin on production elements as much as I can in these reviews, but it is extremely difficult with this particular direction, which took any shred of potential the writing had and castrated it. From the far too quiet dialogue throughout to a lack of understanding of how to best convey the emotion in the writing, I cite the direction as the biggest failing of this show, unfortunately. To describe it as amateurish would be an insult to amateur productions, which there is nothing wrong with. However, this felt under-rehearsed, unfinished, and unsure of what it wanted to be. Whatever it was, it was very clearly at odds with the writing, leading to a creative team that didn’t blend together, clashing in the most unfortunate of ways.
Other creative elements were also problematic with some baffling sound design choices, leaving me wondering whether it was deliberate or just a fault on the night. The two cast members were far too quiet, leaving me struggling to hear what they had to say. Sometimes, sound effects such as the ominous ticking clock drowned them out, ironically only highlighting the slow pacing of the show and how long it felt to finish. The musical numbers in the show weren’t memorable in the slightest, starting and stopping with no real sense. In one of the songs, Alan talks about being an odd number in an even world. Sadly, this was a case of odd numbers in an uneven show.
Joe Bishop did the best he could with the material in the role of Alan Turing, showcasing a beautiful singing voice and moments of potential where he attempted to tap into the emotion of the story. However, the limitations of the writing and direction were far too big for him or any other actor to overcome. Zara Cooke played the remaining characters from Turing’s mother, teacher, and fiancée (all different people, I should clarify) but suffered from a lack of characterisation in a role that has faced heavy rewrites and got lost along the way.
I wanted to love Alan Turing - A Musical Biography. I really did. It is never fun for me to see a show with so much potential fail like this one did. Of course, this is only my personal opinion, for whatever that is worth, and I am sure others will love the show much more than I did on this occasion. I was struck by some of the five-star reviews on the poster and, upon reading how the show has changed over its four different versions, wondered if I might have enjoyed the show more in one of its previous iterations. I think I might have. From all of the tweaking of the show over the last few years, something has very clearly gone wrong this time around. That isn’t to say it is beyond repair as this show very clearly had something in the past. My suggestion would be to go back to the drawing board and make sure the creative team is on the same page to give this show the best possible chance of living up to the great man that was Alan Turing. While it may not have won me over this time around, I will still eagerly look forward to how the show develops in the future. As it stands, however, it has failed to crack the code on how to tell this story in a way befitting of Turing’s enduring legacy.
Alan Turing – A Musical Biography plays at Riverside Studios until 27th January. Tickets from https://riversidestudios.co.uk/see-and-do/alan-turing-a-musical-biography-95097/
Photos by Clive Holland