(seen at the Evening performance on 7th April 2015)
One of the most intensely satisfying evenings the monkey has ever spend in a
theatre. Three hours are gone in a flash (pun intended) as scientists from all
over America and war-torn Europe come together in New Mexico to complete "The
Manhatten Project" - the atomic bomb.
Scientific principles mix with politics, the art of warfare and simple
personal relationships to create a heady brew served by a cast of 25.
Multi-media meets "slide show" and old fashioned chalk-and-talk to explain with
great clarity the complexities of nuclear fusion, fission and the harnessing of
them into a weapon capable of searing a horse to charcoal on one side and
undamaged on the other.
It sounds dull, but trust the monkey, it isn't. Part of the cleverness in Tom
Morton-Smith's writing is taking pre-McCarthy America, when Communism seemed a
rational idea, and using it as a parallel to the story of the bomb's
development. Whether a stream of political ideas or electrons, the result on
human flesh is the same - as a penultimate scene reveals.
The structure of the story demands that the play does not always produce its
key moments at a time normally expected in a narrative. With things happening
simultaneously, science takes precedence, meaning that the more human sequences
are slotted in around it. The final 15 minutes could seem extraneous, until
realising that they are very much required to keep the scale of the horror in
proportion such that the human cost registers. As the play notes "a single death
is tragedy, a million a statistic," and the author rightly counteracts this with
the simplicity of concentrating on personal impacts at that point.
As Oppenheimer, John Heffernan is on stage for much of the play, and
dominates throughout. His progress from professor to survivor encompasses every
human emotion, his strengths and weaknesses creating arguably one of the
greatest modern theatrical characters. Other outstanding artists include Ben
Allen's Edward Teller and Tom McCall's Hans Bethe, physics professors, Daniel
Boyd as Colonel Paul Tibbets, Hedydd Dylan's Jackie Oppenheimer and Laura
Cubitt't tragic Ruth Tolman.
Beautifully staged, this feels a little like a Phd version of "The Curious
Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time." For audiences who found that play a
little simplistic, this is a whole new level of intellectual challenge, told
with similar clarity. Partly down to Angus Jackson's direction, and the fine
choices of designer Robert Innes Hopkins, but also down to an impeccable cast.
It is not an easy evening, but it is one of those rare theatrical occasions that
rewards completely every ounce of attention an audience cares to pay.
Finally, a small note. Do arrive back early from the interval, as when the
safety curtain goes up, there's a lovely musical interlude to enjoy before the
play resumes as Hedydd Dylan sings wonderfully, with Jonathan Williams (Musical
Director) accompanying her. It amused the monkey anyway that one of the choices was "I Don't
Want To Set The World On Fire." Aside from the intended meaning from the play's
context, this remarkable production does indeed appear to do just that.
Photo credits (above): Keith Pattison. Top: John Heffernan (J Robert
Oppenheimer); middle: Company with Catherine Steadman (Jean Tatlock) centre;
bottom: left to right, Jack Holden (Robert Wilson) and Jamie Wilkes (Bob Serber).
Used by kind permission.