by Tom Morton-Smith.
Vaudeville Theatre 404 Strand WC2R 0NH To 23 May 2015.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Wed & Sat 2pm.
Runs 3hr One interval.
TICKETS: 0844 482 9675.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 18 April.
First-rate direction and performances help a serious drama hold a West End stage.
J Robert Oppenheimer’s story, says playwright Tom Morton-Smith of his new, large-scale play, has an epic Shakespearean quality. If so, it resembles a Chronicle History, a latter-day Henry VI. Events determine the structure more than underlying themes.
When John Heffernan’s Oppenheimer starts by talking and chalking, treating us as students who can leave if we can’t keep up, he has a point in saying he can make things clear, but not simple. Matters can grow confusing as incidents whirl along. Some emerge clearly; the way Left Wing parties (in the sense of social occasions, with bucket collections) in 1939 buckle to fear of the FBI a decade later. Or the chafing of military leaders at accommodating ill-disciplined, un-uniformed scientists as nuclear theory developed through secret projects into atomic weapons.
Perhaps the very scale and bustle of Angus Jackson’s large-scale production, with the RSC actors and stage management highly skilled in their effective invisibility at covering sometimes complex transitions between the short scenes, creates a fluidity which doesn’t always make tremendously clear what’s happening where. The bomb-building Manhattan Project was carried out at Los Alamos, New Mexico, yet for a long time all narrative roads seemed to lead to Alaska.
Oppenheimer apart, the scientists, or the women in the life non-scientific that’s casually sketched-in, rarely register. Guilt over the atom bomb was a feature of Heiner Kipphardt’s 1960s play on the matter. The still-living Oppenheimer denied any, and Morton-Smith is on more sharply-focused ground when showing Oppenheimer, his tall, thin figure acquiring a stoop almost from the start, bending to the growing anti-left climate, and refusing to help a blacklisted former student find work.
There’s little of the inevitability or continuity which give shape to the quantum invigoration of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. For the scientific struggle to build the bomb the best imaginative account is probably still C P Snow’s 1954 novel The New Men.
Yet Oppenheimer succeeds in explaining the human dimension behind a moment shadowing late 20th-century Europe and America, and as a virtuoso example of a major theatre company creating a serious drama on an almost bare stage.
J Robert Oppenheimer: John Heffernan.
Frank Oppenheimer: Michael Grady-Hall.
Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz: Oliver Johnstone.
Bob Serber/Albert Einstein.: Jamie Wilkes.
Jackie Oppenheimer: Hedydd Dylan.
Jean Tatlock: Catherine Steadman.
Joe Weinberg/Paul Tibbetts: Daniel Boyd.
Robert Wilson: Jack Holden.
Haakon Chevalier/Richard Feynman: Ross Armstrong.
Charlotte Serber: Sandy Foster.
Kitty Puening Harrison: Thomasin Rand.
Richard Harrison/Klaus Fuchs: Bradley Hall.
Hans Bethe: Tom McCall.
Edward Teller: Ben Allen.
Leslie Groves: William Gaminara.
Kenneth Nichols: Vincent Carmichael.
Doctor/Luis Alvarez: Toby Webster.
Peer Da Silva: Andrew Langtree.
Ruth Tolman: Laura Cubitt.
Little Boy: Fisher Costello-Rose/Barney Fitzpatrick/Finley Jury.
Director: Angus Jackson.
Designer: Robert Innes Hopkins.
Lighting: Paul Anderson.
Sound: Christopher Shutt.
Music: Grant Olding.
Music Director: Jonathan Williams.
Video: Karl Dixon.
Movement: Laura Cubitt.
Choreographer: Scott Ambler.
Text/Voice work: Nia Lynn.
Dialect coach: Michaela Kennen.
Dramaturg: Pippa Hill.
Physics advisor: Professor Dave WSark.
Assistant director: Alexander Lass.