Alan Turing - A Musical Biography opens at The King’s Head Theatre, Islington this week. Previously performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2022, the show from Early Mornings Productions has been thoroughly revised for this run. I caught up with some of the cast and creatives to find out more about it.
Composers | Joel Goodman (JG) & Jan Osborne (JO)
Director | Joe Maingot (JM)
Performers | Joe Bishop (JB), Owen Butcher (OB) Zara Cooke, Shania-Grace Thompson (S-GT)
Let’s start with a brief overview of the work.
(JG): This musical is a two-hander told by Andrea, a fictitious biographer of Alan Turing. She feels compelled to write about Alan after the suicide of her own gay brother. Andrea takes us through his incredible life.
Why a musical about Alan Turing as opposed to a play?
(JG): Well musical theatre is the language in which I write and I am always looking for a stimulus to inspire me to write a song. I am certainly no playwright, so given my commitment to the story, music was the obvious medium to choose and Alan has been a huge inspiration. His life story is brilliant, remarkable and also tragic. These aspects drive me to find interesting melodies, harmonies, rhythms and lyrics.
(JB): One industry person who watched the show in Edinburgh said there is a presumption, sometimes, that music can trivialise an important topic. but they found that the music only enhanced the severity and the reality of the circumstances. I have had people laugh in my face when I’ve mentioned a musical about Alan Turing, so it’s great to receive positive feedback with regard to the topic and choice of genre.
So the music is secure, but Joel, as a non-playwright how did you create the libretto?
(JG): The original libretto for Alan was taken exclusively from letters and academic papers. I feel very proud that the audiences who have seen the musical in Edinburgh and London are truly hearing the voice of Alan Turing. Going forward (Edfringe 2023) we have a new script written by Joan Greening which incorporates more traditional characterised dialogue. I could never have been brave enough to write a script for Alan and have always said that the songs are an artistic interpretation of how Alan may have felt.
That’s the words explained, now let’s bring you into the comfort zone of the music. What sort of style can we expect?
(JG): Vocally I am a fan of a traditional sounding musical theatre vocals as opposed to the more modern rock/pop and jukebox productions. My greatest musical theatre inspirations at present are Sondheim and Bernstein. So the style is traditional and incorporates lots of counterpoint and vocal harmonies, which are my favourite sounds in music.
Well, that’s very comforting for me and I’m sure many others. Turing lived from 1912-1954. How have you related the music to that period?
(JG): The accompaniments are mostly comprised of piano and cello; traditional instruments that featured extensively in the music of that period. We have embellished the tracks with percussive sounds taken from mechanical devices of the era. For example a typewriter.
So we can perhaps add Leroy Anderson as an influence too.
(JG): My piano teacher actually introduced me to the music of Leroy Anderson on a previous project. In particular, The Typewriter, the comical piece of music he composed for orchestra and, of course, a typewriter.
Now we know something about the piece lets find out what attracted people to it. Joe, let’s start with you as the director.
(JM): I think the first thing was Joel's limitless enthusiasm for the work. He really wanted to take the show from its first run at Edinburgh in 2022 and move it on to the next level. The other attraction was the first venue for this revised production. The King's Head Theatre is a special fringe venue that has been around for decades and offers a really unusual traverse/thrust studio theatre in a very intimate space. This posed real challenges for the show's development, as did the prospect of its becoming a touring show. I needed to create a design that would travel. Of course, Alan Turing and the way he was ultimately treated represents both the wonder and the horror of what the human being is capable of and that is always a very attractive proposition for any director.
Owen, you’re playing Turing, what’s the appeal for you of the musical and the character of Alan Turing?
(OB): The play offers a unique take on Turing’s life, told through the lens of a fictional biographer as she reads excerpts from her book. This allows us to jump between many different periods of his life, from his school days to his untimely death, all within the space of just over an hour. For me, playing Turing has been incredibly interesting - with such established portrayals of him already out there, such as Benedict Cumberbatch’s acclaimed turn in The Imitation Game, creating a unique and original interpretation has been a fascinating challenge.
And that interpretation has to be true to the man himself, so let's hear what appeals to others about Alan Turing and also consider the responsibility of portraying a historical figure.
(JB): For me, his intellect, forward thinking and aptitude for asking important questions in a way that seems boundless. His ability to challenge the status quo and not shy away from who he was, also makes him a hero in more ways than one, and subsequently as a campaigner for justice and human rights. As soon you create art on any platform you’re making a statement or statements - there is a responsibility to tell his story as truthfully as possible, no matter what. That is frightening really. I feel that we could easily get it wrong. Although we are exploring it nonetheless! I think taking most of the dialogue from the letters he wrote gives the production authenticity for both us as performers and the audience.
(S-GT): I think that is absolutely true. What appeals to me about this musical and Alan Turing is that it is quite personal and vulnerable at times and I think that vulnerability comes from Alan's letters that are read out within the play. Turing was not recognised for his achievements at the time, yet he had a strong impact during World War II. The fact that you get to see many elements of Turing, the mathematician, his love for Christopher Morecambe and his struggles at school as a young boy, really opens up to the audience that he was more than a war hero, he had successes and challenges just like the rest of us.
(OB): And those are the things we discover through the many fascinating letters which are at the heart of this musical. While we don’t know exactly what Turing’s personality and mannerisms were like, we get a real sense of him through what he wrote, and I have found that having so many of his own words directly featured in the play has helped me to ground the character in reality. I think that when portraying any real-life figure in this medium, it’s essential to find the balance between historical accuracy and dramatisation. In the tragic case of Turing, it is of course particularly important to deal with the sensitive topics of homophobia and suicide in a respectful and thoughtful manner. Within the whole cast and production team, there is a huge respect and admiration for Turing and his work - it really is an absolute privilege to be able to bring his story to life.
And as the director, Joe, this must be a very important area for you.
(JM): Yes. The question of how to portray the man is obviously central to directing the show and it’s proved to be an interesting point. The original production included an interpretation of Alan that was quite restrained, perhaps leaning more towards the view taken in the film, The Imitation Game i.e. that Turing was autistic, and took everything very seriously. This, of course, is not true, and some of our research recently has very much brought this fact to light. So, I think the current production gives a more balanced view of Turing, lighter perhaps, without making it trivial. The other obvious point to make is that all of Alan's lines are taken from his letters so that gives us a verbatim authenticity, which guides how we perform and present him very well. Personally, as director, I wanted those lines to "be themselves" as it were, and allow the actors to bring their own version of Turing to the stage. I think it has to be that way.
You’ve taken over the directorial role since its first try-out in Edinburgh, what your you currently aiming to achieve
(JM): For me, I really wanted to give the production more movement and take it from a relatively static piece that was conceived in a tiny end-on space and turn it into something that could fully exploit any space it found itself in. By introducing five blocks that look like big wooden suitcases to the stage, I created a flexible set design that could bring a new use of levels and space to the performance. In this, I wanted especially to physicalise, to some extent, the story but also give some kind of framework for the dynamic of the central relationship between Turing and his biographer, Andrea.
So we have a musical that is designed to have movement, make use of the space and physicalise content that might otherwise be static, encouraged, no doubt, by Turing's words, " I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard". For those of you charged with this, how does the venture relate to your previous experience and performances?
(S-GT): Alan Turing - A Musical Biography to me feels like a play and a musical combined into one. I have performed in other musicals before but they were more theatrical. This has more of a classical, naturalistic tempo to it, which is very different from a lot of West End Musicals out there at the moment. It helps to keep the play grounded, true, and real to what actually happened within the story of Alan Turing.
(JB): Well, I’m not a trained singer, and before I took up acting I was a dancer. Whilst I feel really lucky to have this opportunity, the prospect of working on a two-hander musical was quite daunting. I have little experience of singing on stage (although, I’m not sure I can keep saying that, now ). The challenge for me is not to be overwhelmed by the music, but to be led by it and keep the narrative truthful and grounded. I have tremendous respect for those that do it all the time, whilst making it look effortless. In awe really.
(OB): This is the first production of a new work that I have been involved with, and it has been a very different experience to anything I have done previously. The show is still in progress, with new songs and scenes being added as we go along, and so as a cast, we have to constantly adapt to this. I have found this type of work allows for much more personal creative input from the performers - much of our rehearsal process has been workshopping different ideas from both the cast and production team to find out what will best serve the show. I am loving it so far, and can’t wait to see how the show develops over the next year!
Picking up on the rehearsal process and workshopping, how is the relationship between director/composers/actors balanced?
(JO): Joel and I have loved the directorial input but do also massively value our cast and their creative input. Time and budget-willing we always aim to encourage open creaåtivity, but recognise that we have strict time restraints now due to our ‘on demand’ return to KHT and other immediate emerging opportunities! We work super well as a team and thankfully, all share same sense of humour!
(JM): Well, I am actually not especially musical so I have never had anything really to do with the music as such. My role has been about acting, especially the use of movement, and the set and lighting design. This has worked well because it means that there has been a clear division of labour between Joel, Jan and me. As regards the actors, I have always tried to take an organic approach to directing. In other words, I come to rehearsal with starting points, stimuli and a sense of direction but my ideal rehearsal is one where actors take these leads and run with them. It grows from them. This approach has worked particularly well as the actors all had a strong sense of ownership of the original show as they had self-directed the first run at Edinburgh '22.
Finally, what would you like people to take away from having seen this show?
(JB): I think in some ways Turing was seen as impervious or hard to relate to. Something I found through more research is that he had a fantastic sense of humour - that’s something that allows everybody in. It was also a way in which he was able to engage the people around him. Cliché as it is, he really was many things, an enigma. I hope we can present or continue to develop the show to illustrate a multi-faceted person, disgracefully persecuted, for simply being true to himself; a theme we have seen all too much of throughout the world’s history. One great thing about theatre is its immediacy, I hope this allows people to see him more intimately. Essentially it's about the continued acknowledgment of his achievements and legacy. The awful way in which he was treated by his own government carries a significant message that seems to really impact audiences.
(OB): I think, that’s absolutely right. While I very much hope that the audience comes away from this show having enjoyed the performance and the music, I think the most important thing to take away would be an understanding of the terrible injustice that Turing suffered. It should make people angry, and perhaps a little uncomfortable, to really think about the way he was treated, and to understand that the discrimination he suffered is still very present in the world today. I hope that shedding light on this brilliant man’s life will remind people just how important tolerance and kindness are - to quote Turing, there is still ‘plenty there that needs to be done’.
(S-GT): I want people to come away feeling educated knowing more about Alan, his background, and his history. To realise just how much he had to sacrifice and stand his ground just to be who he was; a homosexual man in the 1940s. I would like the audience to realise just how far we have come and how far we still have to go. If they walk away feeling enlightened by the music and the story, are impacted and moved, then we have set out what we wanted to achieve.
I'm sure it will be a really enjoyable and fascinating insight for everyone. Many thanks to you all for your contributions and we wish you well with the run and future development of the show.
Alan Turing - A Musical Biography : King's Head Theatre, Tuesday-Saturday 7th- 18th March 2023