From a social outcast to an object of national pity and finally to the status of a wartime hero, Alan Turing’s reputation has had an extraordinary trajectory since his death. But now his mere name is enough to have audiences wowed by a new musical at the Edinburgh festival fringe.
In The Vault, a small venue under a bridge in the city’s old town, the cast of Alan Turing: a Musical Biography, were putting the last touches to their emotional show on Friday afternoon.
An attempt to tell his life story in his own words and in song, the musical, which has been written and directed by music teachers Jan Osborne and Joel Goodman, has already almost sold out its entire month-long run.
“We are stunned by the response,” said Osborne. “There is such an intense interest now in this story.”
And the Turing show is not the only musical on the fringe to chronicle the secret code-breaking work that helped win the second world war. Over in a venue at the Drill Hall , in an army reserve centre in the Scottish capital, an all-female cast is preparing for the previews of a show called Dots and Dashes: A Bletchley Park Musical, which describes the sacrifices the cryptographers made to save millions of lives by quietly fighting their war behind closed doors.
In recent years, the fringe has proved a profitable place for historical musicals to debut. Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow had extraordinary success after their hit show Six, about the wives of Henry VIII, transferred directly to London’s West End following two summers of impressing critics at the festival. Now it has also opened to acclaim on Broadway.
Osborne and Goodman’s Turing musical is told through the device of creating a fictional biographer, Andrea, who narrates the story that is told in the brilliant mathematician’s own personal correspondence. Ashamed of his homosexuality, illegal at the time in Britain, the significance of Turing’s crucial work on German cyphers, as well as on the development of early computer technology, remained unacknowledged for many years after his puzzling death, a suspected suicide, in 1954.
The new show tells of key moments in his career and in his personal life, such as the loss of his closest friend. Much of the dialogue, said Osborne, comes directly from letters that were written to his friends and colleagues and to his mother.
“Turing’s name has huge power now,” said Osborne, who runs a music school in Epping, Essex, with Goodman.
“The music we have written for this show comes largely from the classic musical theatre tradition and we concentrate a lot on the injustice in his life. A lot of the feedback we have had from people so far is that the show has prompted them to find out more about his story. We leave Turing’s cause of death an open question, although we do mention that his family members felt it could have been accidental.”