To Kill a Machine, King’s Head Theatre

To Kill a Machine: Scriptography Productions

How well can you condense Alan Turing’s life and work into one hour? Considering his technologically groundbreaking career, WWII code breaking and conviction for crimes of gross indecency, that’s a lot of source material for precious little time. Catrin Fflur Huws chooses to focus on the man behind the achievements at various pivotal points in his life for To Kill a Machine. From boarding school days to chemical castration shortly before his death, Huws shows the relationships rather than the events that shaped his life. Scenes of naturalism are interspersed with a surreal, presentational game show indicating the factors outside of Turing’s control that dictate his unfortunate fate at the hands of discrimination. Though stylistically dynamic, they are less compelling than the latter. Together, they make a good whole but with so much missing from Turing’s life, the highlights contained in To Kill a Machine shortchange the story of such an important man.

In the centre of a round platform, a wiry, mechanical tree by designer Cordielia Ashwell sprouts important mementos from Turing’s life: a photograph of Christopher, his first love at school, pages of indecipherable code, and the apple that he may or may not have used to kill himself. Its trunk is also a convenient place to store props and costume, but the visual aspect is the most dominant, and strikingly so. The symbol of life manifested in an everlasting, sculptural form against the items that were his downfall is powerful image.

The tree also dictates circular movements from the cast of four, most prominent in the game show scenes and Turing’s sex with his younger lover, Arnold Murray, who eventually betrays him – the moments where his life spirals irrevocably out of control. Alan’s eventual tethering to the tree via medical equipment during his “treatment” is a horrible,  effective reminder of history’s handing of people discovered to be gay and sapping their life force with discriminatory legislation.

Gwydion Rhys as Alan Turing is the anchor in the cast, with a nuanced and sensitive performance that leaves Benedict Cumberbatch’s generic interpretation in the dust. He is complimented well by intimate scenes with François Pandolfo as his school friend Christopher, and older brother John giving him advice in the run up the trial. This latter scene is by far the best in the play.

Though the script is good, it’s short length is unsatisfying and otherwise dwarfed by the performances and design. The structure works as does the lens with which it views Turing’s life, but surely there is more than an hour’s worth of material on the man behind the life-changing mathematician and inventor.

To Kill A Machine runs through 23 April.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

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A Nation’s Theatre: Wail and The Beanfield, Battersea Arts Centre

For two months, theatre makers from across the country are coming to London to celebrate the state of British theatre. One of the A Nation’s Theatre venues is Battersea Arts Centre, currently hosting the double bill of Little Bulb’s Wail and Breach Theatre’s The Beanfield. Wail is an exuberant cabaret about whales and human expression; The Beanfield uses multimedia to examine the impact of police violence on peaceful people and the need to fit in. Though different from each other in content and tone, both Little Bulb and Breach play with performance conventions to create innovative new structures that are at the forefront of theatre performance.

WAIL_Little Bulb Theatre

There’s a lot of science in Wail, and a lot of musical instruments. Actor-musicians Clare Beresford and Dominic Conway, performing as themselves, also have boundless enthusiasm and impressive music repertoires. With material ranging from folk to metal, they share their enthusiasm for whales through songs alternating with monologues of scientific facts. Their charisma and cheer keeps these sections engaging, particularly with the addition of audience interaction. Though the overall energy is light and positive, Beresford’s melancholy for never actually seeing a whale in the flesh provides a bit of contrast to the Male Whale Choir, a hilarious whole-audience exploration of whale songs that males use when on the pull in the coastal waters of Madagascar.

There isn’t as much material on the promised exploration of why humans wail, but a song about why they sing songs is a tender, poignant homage to feeling fragile. This fun, frivolous show is light on the gravitas that a bit more time on this topic could bring, but Wail is still a wonderful, joyful piece as is. The symphonic final number is a fantastic climax wrapping up an excellent contribution to A Nation’s Theatre.

The Beanfield_014_please credit Richard Davenport

The Beanfield by Warwick University’s Breach Theatre wowed audiences at Edinburgh last summer, and understandably so. Drawing on the historic clash between new age travelers heading to Stonehenge and police fresh from the miners’ strikes, they add the framing device of a uni reenactment group researching the event in order to recreate it, and a counter narrative of a group of students going to Solstice. It’s a sophisticated script with plenty of absurdity to lighten the bleak depiction of police violence against unarmed civilians, but still serves as a potent reminder that this happens today in the UK and abroad. Part documentary, interview footage with witnesses on both sides is broadcast liberally; even though the inclusion of police is sympathetic, The Beanfield firmly supports the travelers. Rightly so – pregnant women and children were among the 600 or so attacked with truncheons and projectiles by 1000-odd police.

There is no explicit link between the Beanfield story and that of the contemporary, skeptical students at Solstice, but the inclusion of the latter provides some necessary humour. It’s not a needed subplot though, and detracts from the power behind the political statement of the Beanfield standoff. The script is a great collage of experiences past and present, the sweet naivety of students juxtaposing the atrocities that happened at thirty years previously. The Beanfield, a bit less polished than Wail, is still an excellent piece of theatre with some important thoughts on police brutality.

With multimedia at its forefront, The Beanfield captures the rapid-fire sensory bombardment of present day youth and the desire to instigate change as well as fit in with our peers. Wail, mostly analogue and much less angry, implies the importance of conservation and sympathy for all creatures, human and not. Both shows excellently address concerns of people in this country and experiment with performance, fitting contributions to A Nation’s Theatre.

Wail runs until 23 April, The Beanfield until 21 April then touring.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.