Thanks to the very impressive – if historically extremely iffy – movie ‘The Imitation Game’ you probably think you know all there is to know about renowned mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and theoretical biologist Alan Turing. The tortured soul who, treated so badly by an ungrateful nation after his efforts during World War Two, ends his story by killing himself by eating an apple laced with cyanide is almost old news. But, suppose he had had a close confident that had stopped him eating the apple and given him a chance to review his life before taking the fateful bite? What would have happened then? Welcome to Snoo Wilson’s Lovesong of the Electric Bear which is back in London, at the Above the Arts Theatre in Soho.
As news of Turing’s (Ian Hallard) death spreads out among the great and the good, his favourite toy – a stuffed bear by the name of Porgy (Bryan Pilkington) – speaks to the man and offers to take him back through his life, giving Alan the opportunity to decide if he really wants to go through with the suicide. Travelling back with Porgy and Alan, we meet his parents – fussy mother Ethel (Helen Evans) and civil servant father Julius (William Hartley) on the day before he is due to start at Sherborne School. As we move through his school days we are introduced to his best friend Christopher (Laura Harling) and get to see some of the more negative aspects of his schooldays which were a pretty miserable time for the young Alan. The narrative, moves quite fast through Alan’s awarding of a fellowship at Cambridge University aged 22 and onwards with his recruitment to the SIS and work at Bletchley until the fateful time he meets and seems to fall for young Mancunian Arnold (Chris Levens) the boy who ultimately proves Alan’s professional and personal downfall and inadvertently leads him to the fateful apple.
To call Lovesong of the Electric Bear quirky is possibly an understatement. For such a serious subject as the life and death someone like Alan Turing to be narrated and pretty well dominated by a man in a massive fur costume could almost be seen as an insult to his memory. And yet, I have to admit, it really worked well as a storytelling device.
Porgy could have been too OTT but thanks to excellent acting by Bryan Pilkington he comes across in the same way as Woody or Buzz from ‘Toy Story’. Porgy really cares about Alan, not thinking of himself as being a toy but more as a sort of substitute brother. This comes across very well in the scenes that Bryan and Ian have together, where it is obvious the two of them, both as characters and actors, have a wonderful rapport, in fact the final scene with just the two of them together under a single light was, for me, incredibly moving. Ian makes a very credible Alan Turing. Not being able to lose 40 odd years physically, Ian manages to convey all the various periods of Alan’s life superbly through his demeanor and voice. A real pleasure for me to see two great actors like these together.
Full credit as well to the rest of the cast who, between the four of them play 22 named characters along with various unnamed ones including one very surreal moment where they are all New York drag queens. To be honest, this was one for the faults of the production. In order to get Turing’s highly eventful life into a two hour show, writer Snoo Wilson has had to produce some amazingly short scenes with characters flying on and off the stage at breakneck speed, not always getting a chance to establish themselves with the audience. Linked with some at times quite surreal direction by Matthew Parker, the show has the potential to get a little disjointed occasionally.
Both my companion and I thoroughly enjoyed the show and spent quite a while afterwards discussing it – including my revised ending – everyone is a secret playwright I think. One thing we did agree on is that the show was highly entertaining from start to finish and whilst it worked well in the intimate space of Above the Arts, it could and should be transferred to one of London’s bigger theatres with, I would predict a nice long run to keep the Turing story alive. Whilst I can’t honestly say I know any more about the history of Alan Turing than I did before going, I do feel that after seeing Lovesong of the Electric Bear I do actually know a bit more about the personality of the man behind the legend.
Review by Terry Eastham
Awoken from his deathbed by his favourite childhood teddy bear, Alan Turing is led by the hand through the journey of his life, from glowing academia to New York drag bars, from triumph to disgrace.
Lovesong of the Electric Bear by Snoo Wilson (National Theatre, Royal Court, RSC, ENO) is an epic and electrifying trip through the life of Alan Turing, the computer visionary and maths genius whose gifts made him the code-breaking hero of World War II, but whose homosexuality led him to betrayal by the very establishment who had depended on him for victory.
Lovesong of the Electric Bear is a wonderfully imaginative, comic and moving story of a true hero brought to life by of one of British theatre’s great voices. This acclaimed production transfers to the intimate surroundings of the West End’s newest immersive studio at The Arts following a sell out, award-nominated run at The Hope Theatre.
Suitable for 16+
Running Time: 2 hours including interval
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