Reviewed – 20th August 2018
“impressive visual verisimilitude and accents beamed straight from the forties”
In a disused rug factory in South London, the intrigues of the wartime codebreakers of Bletchley Park are woven into an immersive version of this familiar narrative. A ground floor room and basement are transformed into the famous stables in which the German Enigma machine ciphers were cracked. Here, the audience mingles with heroic figures such as Alan Turing, Joan Clarke and Dilly Knox, cracking codes together and playing chess, after which the strands of hidden affairs, espionage, sickness and forbidden sexuality intertwine with appropriate cleverness, before resolving over a glass of ginger wine.
The production company, Mechanical Thought, blends game mechanics and puzzling with theatre, as if immersion isn’t novelty enough, but it’s a seamless fit. The nature of the genre means that no two experiences are the same, but in Hut 6, I can vouch for the calm yet commanding performance of Tom Black as Gordon Welchman, the epitome of pipe-smoking ultra-intelligence, as he assisted our group (eventually) crack vital intercepts. These were rushed in by a breathless Amelia Stephenson as Joan Clarke, in real life the longest-serving member of the Bletchley Park team but, since various film versions, better known for being Turing’s short-suffering fiancé.
As the evening progresses, it transpires that all the casting is excellent, with impressive visual verisimilitude and accents beamed straight from the forties. David Alwyn is a crepuscular Dilly Knox, Timothy Styles angsts for England as Alan Turing and Beth Jay blushes brilliantly as Mavis Lever. Christopher Styles’ direction avoids any sense of spoof, evoking the repressed yet militarised demeanour of the period. There is plenty of ‘Fritz’, Old man’ and ‘Doodad’, but with clipped delivery and authentic hairstyles, all are wholly plausible.
The COLAB Factory appears to have a fan club of regulars and it’s not hard to see why. The space may be cluttered, smelly and a little short of oxygen when rooms are full, but the proximity to the performances creates a visceral sense of involvement. There are short-comings, inevitably. The high standard of the scripted parts puts pressure on the improvisational elements, which falter in pace, though not in characterisation. The art direction is thorough, but on a budget, and the location not ideal. However, these are all details that will improve, especially if they manage to take the production, as hoped, to Bletchley Park itself.
Reviewed by Dominic Gettins
Photography by Paul Russenberger
COLAB Factory until 28th August
Previously reviewed at this venue