Ada and the Engine

Ada and the Engine
By Lauren Gunderson. Glenbrook Players, NSW. May 12 – 20, 2023

Ada and the Engine is a period drama set at the dawn of the British Industrial Revolution centring around historical figure Ada Lovelace (Rebecca Dean). Lovelace is described as the first computer programmer who, along with Charles Babbage (John Forbes), theorised analytic engines capable of taking commands to solve various mathematical questions. Director Heather McGreal and the cast at Glenbrook Players take on the task of making maths compelling, and it is an A+.

Ada Lovelace is the daughter of the notorious Lord Byron (played by 17 year old Zak Harrison), haunted by a father she never knew with an ever-present mother (Angela Pezzano) in her ear trying to instruct her not to talk maths while forcibly orchestrating a relationship with respectable suitor, Lord Lovelace (Anthony Ashdown). It is an often impossible task given maths practically spills out of Ada.

McGreal, along with set designer Wilver Valasco, cleverly use the space with simple furnishings. A desk each for Ada and Charles on opposite sides of the stage suggesting the physical distance placed between the two (hint – - it is worth taking a closer look at Charles’ desk), a chaise and 2 chairs with small table are all that is needed to suggest a range of scenes. No set pieces come on or off, a stagehand not seen. Simple and elegant. The passing of time occurs via Sam Hardaker’s lighting design and exchanging of letters as the real love story between Ada and Charles unfolds - the two genius minds corresponding through time and space - a natural chemistry flowing as they spark and inspire each other, propelling theories forward over correspondence. The characters are played genuinely, and complex relationships laid bare, soulmates destined never to be together apart from the melding of minds. No wonder a baffled Lord Lovelace banishes Babbage when the mathematical dance of words and numbers become very sexy during a flurry of banter right in front of him.

It is clear that this is a passion project for McGreal, handled with love and care. Yes, the script is a good one. There is so much layered into it with puns and references hidden like little gems for the audience to discover, but these were real people. They lived, loved and breathed and needed to be handled respectfully. She allows the actors to feel and to sit in the silence at times, often resulting in captivating magical moments. The presence of movement choreographed by Anthony Ashdown and music add at times a compelling layer. McGreal and Ian Bate have chosen a beautiful soundtrack, while numbers, formulas and codes climb the walls quietly via projections designed by Ainsley Yardley as a backdrop often accompanying the sparking of genius between Ada and Charles or Ada alone.

Now, if you want someone on costumes it’s without a doubt Barbara Vasilescu, who is I’m sure running about backstage with an iron perfecting costumes before they dare appear on stage. Not a wrinkle, not a crease and fitted like they were made for each actor. Couple that with McGreals passion for historical attire and you know the costumes will be chef’s kiss stunning, and they are. Beautiful gowns that’s swish and swirl and all the layers.

McGreal has selected a blue ribbon cast. Ashdown’s Lord Lovelace, a man of his time loving a woman who he will never understand and whose heart would never be his. At times Lord Lovelace is seemingly cold and inconsiderate but the layered vulnerability was played wonderfully. Lady Byron is equally haunted by Lord Byron and spends a lot of the time trying to pluck him from her daughter, projecting her own disdain for him onto Ada. She does not understand her complicated daughter’s brilliance and separates her from Babbage, often appearing cruel and heartless. A difficult role to play, well handled by Pezzano. Charles Babbage’s tormented brilliance and steadfast love for the woman he could never have was both touching and devastating. Zak Harrison plays the coveted role of Lord Byron, who appears mostly as a ghostly vision, and Michelle O’Reilly has some lovely moments as Mary Somerville. 

The star of the show is ultimately Rebecca Dean; her excitement is contagious as she delivers impassioned monologues and letters filled with numbers and theories tumbling and flowing like a river. Dean has developed the character, trying to be what a woman should be while tangling with her curiosity and mathematical genius. We watch her from bright eyed youngster, to wife, mother and author in her mid 30’s. Dean is breathtaking, and members of the audience rose to their feet in appreciation. The journey was a beautiful one to watch with Dean capturing her warmth, passion, zest and finally fragility. 

Ada and the Engine is a history lesson in math I didn’t know I needed, beautifully and thoughtfully presented by the team at Glenbrook. McGreal ends the show with a montage that pays homage to women in science over the years. It is an empowering and moving tribute. Make sure to duck into the adjoining hall to grab a cuppa and see more of these incredible women in history on display.

Nicole Smith

Photographer: Aurel Vasilescu

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