A new musical written and directed by David Byrne and composed by Dominic Brennan, The Universal Machine tells the story of renowned yet often under-appreciated mathematician Alan Turing, who spent his life trying to prove that artificial intelligence is possible. In this portrait of the man’s troubled life, the ensemble of actors provide an engaging and respectful interpretation of Turing’s hopes and fears as he struggles to make connections with the people around them.
The New Diorama Theatre is an 80-seat black box theatre, and the production feels as makeshift as it must have been in last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The singers’ only accompaniment is provided by a single keyboardist sitting in the back corner of the stage (who often also lends a voice to the small ensemble during songs) plus the occasional addition of a violin played by one of the actresses when she is not ‘onstage.’ With only one real exit, actors often wait to come onstage in full view of the audience, and quick changes often result in a character’s costume being reduced to a single headband or article of clothing. With undone buttons on shirts and a crooked hanging backdrop, this is clearly theatre still in development.
Yet for all of that, the production shines. The ensemble nature of the show really aids in telling the story, in which people pass in and out of Turing’s life without his control until nothing remains but the man himself. Richard Delaney plays Turing with caution and depth, a perpetually troubled man who still always knows what he knows and never hesitates to say it. He periodically breaks out of the story to narrate events retrospectively to the audience or to reflect on the philosophical implications of his research, but it never feels intrusive to the story being told. In fact, the scene in which, after a silly and yet heartbreaking rendition of ‘Why Not Be Normal?’ Turing and new fiancee/fellow codebreaker Joan Clarke (Cecilia Colby) together leave the present moment and comment upon their former idealism and innocence is one of the strongest moments in the play.
The songs are rather hit-or-miss, with solo pieces simply resembling monologues set to music and ensemble pieces often consisting of one or two lines repeated over and over (‘Sport,’ ‘Building the Bomb’). Despite the unimaginative lyrics, the ensemble’s vocal talents are very apparent, as are the skills of the very small orchestra. The choreography, meanwhile, is clever and innovative without turning the play into a dance musical, allowing the ensemble to move in and out of scenes without interrupting the flow of the action.
Other standout actors include Leah Milner as Turing’s brash and intrusive landlord in Bletchley Park, Mrs Ramshaw, and Judith Paris as Turing’s mother. The only character who does not participate in ensemble scenes when not onstage, Mrs Turing’s presence in the show resembles what it must have in Turing’s life–fleeting and unreliable, yet very emotional and profoundly important when she does turn up again. Her struggle to understand and accept her son forms the backbone of the piece as much as Turing’s struggle to understand himself, and it is impossible to question the love she feels for him.
The Universal Machine is a story that attempts to comprehend why a brilliant man in the prime of his academic life would be found dead one day in his home next to a cyanide-laced apple. At the end of the show, the audience comes away with a greater level of empathy than I was expecting for the genius computer scientist (before there were even computers) who could have done it all and yet still did so much. The musical is still a bit shaky on its feet, but spot-on acting, an engaging and self-reflexive script and a story that needs to be told make this a show well worth seeing. If nothing else, you will come out of it pondering the same question that Alan Turing debated for so long: ‘Can machines think?’