It was a strange night to see Oppenheimer on The Strand in London. One half of the street was in darkness due to an earlier fire at Holborn, and you can’t fail to notice the number of homeless people on the street as you walk to the theatre. It does make you wonder whether theatre is tackling the right issues. But then the creation of the first atomic bomb is definitely a definitive invention of recent times so I guess it more than justifies its own play.
At first I wasn’t sure. There are early moments of the play where I felt like I was on a school trip being taken to see ‘an important play.’ To be honest I wasn’t that confident I understood the science. But once both the play and I settled in, I was thoroughly swept along. It would be hard not to be with such exceptional writing, performances and direction.
Catherine Steadman as Jean Tatlock was utterly engaging from the start – sexy, troubled and smart. And the portrayal of Oppenheimer’s affair and subsequent marriage to Kitty (Thomasin Rand) is delightfully executed. She’s fantastic by the way (Rand), and compelling every single moment she’s on stage. John Heffernan as Oppenheimer is also absorbingly watchable. He captures the brilliant outsider in his performance and ‘Oppies’ passion for his work, his ambition which appears for the most part selfish, but which he later claims was selfless.
Angus Jackson certainly makes use of the theatre. Cast members pop up on balconies, from the audience and side doors. The whole stage is used, from floors to walls, to the on stage band and the thrusting metal pushing from the ceilings. There’s also some beautiful creative lighting that reminded me a little of the fun of Matilda and Curious Incident. Tom Morton-Smith has created an epic scale play with epic scale characters that felt real and convincing and complicated.
But for me what kept the play pertinent to right now, a month away from a General Election, is that as much as anything this is a play about power. It’s about what ambition and a drive to win can do to a person. The more powerful ’Oppie’ becomes, the more dictatorial, the less compassionate, the more paranoid and the more his Ego dictates and he sheds the friends of his former self in pursuit of his goal. And as much as he might protest that his actions for were for the greater good – that he wanted to end all wars – Morton-Smith leaves plenty of space to debate whether winning and the love of the competition was his real motivation.
Review by Roz Wyllie
1930 Fascism spreads across Europe, Franco marches on Barcelona and two German chemists discover the processes of atomic fission. In Berkeley, California, theoretical physicists recognise the horrendous potential of this new science; a weapon that draws its power from the very building blocks of the universe. The ambitious and charismatic J Robert Oppenheimer finds himself uniquely placed to spearhead the largest scientific undertaking in all of human history.
Struggling to cast off his radical past and thrust into a position of power and authority, Oppenheimer races to win the “battle of the laboratories” and create a weapon so devastating that, with the detonation of a single device, it would bring about an end not just to the Second World War but to all war.
As the political situation darkens, Tom Morton-Smith’s new play takes us into the heart of the Manhatten Project and explores the tension between the scientific advances that will shape our understanding of the fabric of the universe, and the justification of their use during wartime, revealing the personal cost of making history.
Directed by Angus Jackson who recent credits include King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre and Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes
Age Restrictions: Suitable for 12+
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.00pm
Show Opened: 27th March 2015
Booking Until: 23rd May 2015
2nd April 2015