14 December 2011
Breaking the Code
"by Hugh Whitemore at the new Theatre at the Old Fire Station."
By: Julia Gasper.
I was delighted to see the new Theatre open at the Old Fire Station on Tuesday evening. The old one, shabby though
it was, had seen many a fascinating and rewarding dramatic production. The building now has been refurbished as a
result of the government’s Places of Change Programme and houses the Crisis Skylight Centre as well as the new
theatre. Everything is bright, colourful and cheerful, and with the Christmas trees and decorations sparkling, it
gave us a warm welcome.
Breaking the Code is the play chosen by the Oxford Theatre Guild to launch the new theatre and it is well up to
their usual high standards of production. Based on the book by Andrew Hodges, “Alan Turing: the Enigma,” the play
tells the life story of this shy and stammering mathematician who played such an important part in World War II.
Turing was among the team at Bletchley Park who broke the German Enigma code, in which all the enemy messages were
sent. Yet despite getting the OBE, he was later subjected to a humiliating prosecution for his homosexual
behaviour, and his death a few years later was probably suicide.
It may be that the play slightly exaggerates Turing’s role in breaking the code. Actually a team of Polish
decrypters had been working on the project for seven years before the war and their groundwork was crucial. Then
there was a lucky break in 1941, when a British destroyer, the HMS Bulldog, captured an enigma encoding machine
from a German U-boat before sinking it. The acquisition was kept top secret. Finally, the Germans did make some
mistakes: one was that on Hitler’s birthday all officers sent him messages of greeting and as they all ended “Heil,
Hitler!” this provided another useful clue for the Bletchley team. So Turing was one of a team, but nevertheless he
was an invaluable asset and his later work made a substantial contribution to the development of the modern
computer. The play has a streak of really dry humour. It also shows the pathos of Turing’s lonely lifestyle,
picking up youths in pubs and then finding they have rifled his wallet before leaving. We wince as a policeman
questions him about all the details of this encounter. To us now it seems that the “gross indecency” is in having
to tell a third person exactly what happened.
Joseph Kennaway’s performance in the demanding role of Turing is an impressive one, and the others who stood out
were Wayne Brown as Ron and Tim Eyres as Knox, the Bletchley boss. Kevin Elliot, the director, is to be
congratulated on this production and I look forward to many more now that this venue has risen from the ashes. I
think that the people who campaigned, forty years ago, to save the Old Fire Station as a community arts centre,
would be pleased and happy to see it now.