Dots and Dashes: A Bletchley Park Musical – The Space, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Music and Lyrics: Charlotte Fenning and Katie Damer

Book and Director: ChopLogic Productions

Until the 1970s, little if anything was known about the wartime activities taking place at the Buckinghamshire country estate known as Bletchley Park. Now, we know that it was the venue for a massive intelligence unit dedicated to intercepting and decoding German military messages.

Much of the mystique around Bletchley’s codebreaking activities has centred around Alan Turing, whose work creating automated decryption techniques helped to crack the ever-rotating Nazi ciphers in time to allow the messages to be understood. And while there have been several attempts to put Turing’s life on to the stage, ChopLogic Productions have chosen instead to concentrate on another side of Bletchley Park life – the women who did the work of putting the decryption to use.

Dots and Dashes takes place in one of Bletchley Park’s huts, as a group of women form a production line of messages. A radio operator takes down the Morse code of the encrypted message; a TypeX operator feeds the messages into the machine which decodes the message into German; a translator converts the message into English; and a map operator plots all the individual fleet movements to detect larger patterns of Nazi activity.

Devised by the entire six-woman company and with songs by performers Charlotte Fenning and Katie Damer, the musical credentials of the show initially fails to impress, opening as it does with a weakly rewritten version of The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy to set the scene. Thankfully, the rest of the duo’s songs provide more individuality and originality, although in several places the strengths of the melodies – and, indeed, the six-piece harmonies – could do with being matched with similarly strong lyrics.

The script and story structure are clearly well researched, and are strongest when contemplating the effects the base’s secrecy had on its workers and their families. Such was the secrecy surround Bletchley that the women’s families were unaware that they were doing any sort of war work at all, let alone the sort of work that would save millions of lives and shorten the length of the war. Even more poignantly, the intercepted messages might signal danger for loved ones serving overseas, but those working at Bletchley would be powerless to save those in peril.

Less successful are attempts to give a couple of the women some deeper personal stories. Issues from whether or not to abort an unwanted pregnancy, to an unrequited same-sex passion, are raised, but only really resolved by projected captions at the end of the piece, leaving the onstage characters with no true resolution.

And saddest of all is that, despite all the years of secretive service that women such as those depicted gave to their country, their story as shown here is ultimately tremendously passive. They are told that their work collating enemy movements is vitally important, but Dots and Dashes struggles to show that in any way that might prove dramatically interesting.

The desire to turn the spotlight away from the men at the top of Bletchley Park and onto the array of other workers who were just as vital is a laudable one. Just as Turing’s story has provoked many attempts to tell it, one can only hope that more productions follow ChopLogic’s lead in looking elsewhere in the park – and that they find ways to bring life to these women’s stories in ways that Dots and Dashes struggles to achieve.

Continues until 14 January 2023

The Reviews Hub Score

Passive war story

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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