Bringing in their own touches, yet keeping everything that made the play the classic it is, the People’s Theatre’s production of Breaking the Code is a lesson to everyone in how to do this right.
Regulars here may have noticed that I review very few plays from conventional amateur dramatics. This is partly because the two I watch the most I work too closely with to review fairly, but it’s more that it’s rare for me to see anything that stands out. It’s a tough thing to do. A fringe theatre company working with a fraction of the resources can wow me with a great script or originality, but when you’re performing a well known play, what can you do? It must be said that a lot of amateur dramatics productions don’t help themselves by thinking that a good play is all about remembering your lines and standing in sightlines – even People’s productions have fallen into that trap before. But even with the best will in the world, there’s always the nagging thought at the back in the back of your mind that no matter how well you do, a professional company can do it better. Sure, the script might be great – and few would say anything else about Hugh Whitemore’s story of the Alan Turing and one of the nation’s greatest injustices against one of its greatest heroes – but that achievement isn’t yours.
So it is a rare pleasure to see the People’s defy these expectations completely, and put something that is not only on par with a professional company’s offerings, but in some ways even surpasses them. The People’s is at an advantage over most of its peers in that it has a far wider choice of actors – everyone here was suited to their part, from a suitably shifty Ron Miller to 1950-mentality detective Mick Ross to a suitably officious Dilwyn – but that is not what makes this play stand out. What stands out here is touches the People’s added to make their production unique. From the start and throughout, Leah Page’s creative set added a personal stamp on the play, but by biggest change – and a bit of a gamble too – was transforming this play from an intimate production with never more than three people on stage to a big productions with a cast of seventeen.
This is not the first time the People’s have used an ensemble in a play that works without. But here, the ensemble is far more than background decoration. They interact with the play, add to the scenes, but never once look like a bolt-on designed to give more members of the company a chance to be on stage. When Alan Turing picks up Ron at the pub, starting off a chain of events that leads to his demise, the other people in the pub stare, noticing the two men talking like this – it is suitably understated, doesn’t distract from the story, but neither is it relegated to background. As police offices, or workers at Bletchley, this approach is used throughout the play, and if anything, I’d have liked to have seem more of that. Most importantly, if you don’t know better, this production makes it look like this is how it was meant to have been performed all along.
However, this creativity is not a substitute for making the most of the script. Far from it, everything that made this script the classic it is brought out to the fore. Richard Jack was a perfect choice for Alan Turing, bringing his principles and briallance in the good times, his naivety and vulnerability in the bad times, but it goes so much further than that. Amdram so often shows off their skill with line-learning by zipping through zipping through the script with word perfecting at warp speed 9. Here, however, every nuance worked into the lines is recognised and expressed fitting. There’s so many examples I could pick out, but my favourite exchanges had to be between Alan Turing and Pat Green (Rachel Scott), the woman who know how he is but desperately want it to change. In a world where the normal thing would have been for men like Turing to pretend they felt the same and get married, things could have been so different, and a late conversation about what might have been plays out beautifully.
And I could go on. Normally this late in the review I’d pick out one or two things that could have been done better, but this time the small issues I’d pick out pale into insignificance against all the things done right. Usually I urge amateur societies to aim high and try to get as close you can to the standard of the professionals, which is an impossibly high hurdle to clear but something to aspire to. Here, however, the People’s have cleared this hurdle, and, if anything, have done something that many professional companies can’t do. For a cast of this size, you’d normally be looking at the high-end high-expense productions at Newcastle Theatre Royal, but the People’s can do this without. Other groups should take lessons from this. Not so much adding ensembles to every play – few groups, professional or amateur, are in a position to do this – but everything else. Too many people are terrified of making the slightest digression from what the script says, as if defiles to sanctity of the text. This production added its own touches where it added to it, but kept everything that mattered the same, and made the most of that too. This is how it’s done. Everyone else take note.