I went to the Hub, a new type of theatre in Holbeck, Leeds, to see a new type of play, although I didn’t expect would tell me anything new.
The Hub, home to the Slung Low theatre company, is underneath some huge railway arches and is full of surprises. There is a conventional, smallish auditorium (or as they now put it, to cover both flats and theatres, a studio) and a largish lobby/bar which has old (or as they now put it ‘retro’) settees and an Aga-type cooker pumping out a huge amount heat. The room looks like it’s been decorated by an eccentric-grandparents' collective.
Drinks of wine or beer, which are served in coffee mugs, cost £1 each, and the well-appointed (whatever that means) toilets are in two garden sheds outside, where there are also rows of repurposed retro bathtubs used to grow vegetables and herbs, though I don’t know why.
So really, it would be worth visiting the Hub even if the show turned out to be lousy, which this show, called That is All You Needs to Know, is definitely not. It’s yet another examination, closely following the film The Imitation Game, of the code-breakers of Bletchley Park, who are generally thought to have shortened the war by several years and ensured the right result, although they weren’t allowed to talk about their triumph because of the British fetish for secrecy (hence the play’s title).
It took a cast of just seven to tell me things about Bletchley Park which far more lavish productions (including the filmed Robert Harris thriller Enigma) somehow failed to mention.
For instance, that thousands of people worked at the base, not just Alan Turing, a few eccentric academics and some pretty young women with period hairstyles; that the groundwork for the project was done by Polish cryptographers; that other brilliant code-breakers, especially Gordon Welchman, deserve to be put on the same pedestal as Turing and that barely anything was said about the extraordinary events at Bletchley Park until about 30 years later, because all the former staff obeyed both the Official Secrets Act and the rules of official British reticence and Twitter hadn’t been invented – and actually might still, without Turing, Welchman and other computer pioneers, be waiting to batter us with inexhaustible supplies of babble and blather.
Also that most of the equipment and documents relating to of Bletchley Park’s work was destroyed after the war and that in the early 1990s it was proposed to knock down the Victorian mansion and its hugely important work-huts and replace them with the usual shops, flats and offices, because isn’t that what we fought the war for?
The play covers not just the war years, but also the work of volunteer activists who saved Bletchley Park from demolition so it could be turned into a memorial and museum - which would be a lot of work for seven actors if the cast didn’t have that energy and unselfish community-mindedness which got us through the war, combated the wrecking of much of Britain by developers and also gave us innovative, inadequately-paid theatre groups like Idle Motion.
The group does very serious research, including in this case interviewing ex-Bletchley Hill staff, checks out all the facts, and then turns the whole thing into a kind of slow dance. The story is choreographed, using movement and brilliant electronic effects rather than having actors facing the audience and taking it in turns to say things. It even fits in some affectionate satire about the middle-classness of well-meaning middle-class activists.
Which I know doesn’t explain things very well, so - which I don’t often say about plays - you’ll have to see it yourselves (it’s on tour).