I don’t know how I’m going to review Illicit Signals – because I had to sign the Official Secrets Act before the show began!
Go back in time to the 1940’s, learn how to decipher secret codes and learn about the lives of the people in Bletchley Park.
Parabolic Theatre, the immersive theatre company have joined forces with Mechanical Thought to co-produce a remount of Illicit Signals Bletchley. This show premiered at the COLAB Factory before the pandemic (remember them days?) and now it’s back at a brand new venue, CRYPT.
CRYPT is an underground venue, located behind St Peter’s Church in Bethnal Green. It is incredibly atmospheric, and as soon as you walk down the steps into the venue – you feel like you have stepped back in time to 1941. There’s a ‘NAAFI’ bar, posters from the era advertising cigarettes and bovril, the furniture is of the period and the cast are in 1940’s get up and sporting RP accents.
All of the characters played within this show, are based on real people that lived and worked at Bletchley Park during WWII.
From this main room there are 3 other rooms, which are the ‘offices’ of the people that work at Bletchley Park. For the first part of the evening, you are divided up and go to one of the rooms. I was led to Hut 8 with Alan Turing (Timothy Styles) and Joan Clarke (Amelia Stephenson). During this part you are taught the basics of code breaking and how to decipher messages from the Nazis. This was so much fun – you felt a real sense of achievement when you cracked a code.
The second part of the evening then felt slightly strange and disorganised. There was a moment when we went back to our original huts, with more people entering as they were told to come to Hut 8, then we were all led to another hut and then were told to go back to our hut as soon as we entered, and for a little while it felt a bit muddled and confused. I was unsure what was going on in the other rooms and where we were meant to be, I didn’t know whether we were supposed to change rooms or not etc.
Other immersive shows have the main parts of the story happen in the main area in front of everyone, so that no one misses out on any of the essential parts. In Illicit Signals things happen in the little side rooms, so if you are not in a particular one, you miss out on that part, I guess?
During this second part it dealt with Alan Turing and his sexuality, some of the characters were aware of his homosexuality, but he had just asked Joan to marry him! This part provided some incredible performances from Styles and Stephenson – Stephenson in particular was captivating and gave a powerful and emotional performance.
Due to bits of the show happening in smaller rooms, it meant that touching moments between Joan and Alan for example felt quite awkward to watch, as there were only about 5 people in the room watching. Also because I went into that Hut, I spent a lot of time with Alan and Joan, and therefore did not really learn much about the other characters or see what they were up to.
The ending was poignant and beautiful with the characters handing an audience member a card and then exiting the room. The audience member then reads the card aloud which explains what happened to the character. It’s particularly heartbreaking in Alan’s case, as he was found to be homosexual, which was illegal at the time, therefore he was chemically castrated which led to his suicide.
There are no weak links in this cast, they all stay in character for 120 minutes and are improvising for that entire time! There is no script, which makes the show even more impressive.
Overall this was a very enjoyable evening, it was great fun to crack the codes! I just think the second half could have flowed better and be better thought out so everyone gets to see everything, or we rotate rooms so get to know other characters more.
I have really struggled with what to rate Illicit Signals Bletchley, as it has 5 star performances and a 5 star venue. The first half was great, but the second half let it down slightly, I hate half star reviews but that is where this show sits. However, I highly recommend checking this show out for a uniquely fun evening out.
It’s great that we are finally celebrating the lives of the people that worked in Bletchley Park, they were unable to tell anyone about the work they were doing and had to keep these secrets for 30 years after the war ended! Now at last we can learn about these amazing people.
🎟 PR invite
Alan Turing – Timothy Styles
Joan Clarke – Amelia Stephenson
Alfred ‘Dilly’ Knox – Al Barclay
Mavis Lever – Beth Jay
Keith Batey – Gabriel Burns
Gordon Welchman – Sandy Murray
Lt. Henry Tailor – Jaya Baldwin
Maj. Charles Richards – Christopher Styles – Also Writer & Director
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