Tuesday 5 June 2012

The Physicists at the Donmar, or Proving that Plays that Preach are often Problematical

Note: This is a review of the preview performance on June 5, 2012. The press night takes place on June 7, 2012.

After the two blazingly good productions which opened Josie Rourke's tenure as artistic director at the Donmar (The Recruiting Officer and Making Noise Quietly) I had high hopes for this. There are good moments but as a whole it doesn't reach the same standards, though allowances must be made, at least as far as pacing is concerned, for the fact that it is still in previews.

The first issue is Durrenmatt's play. It starts off in decidedly comedic vein – indeed the first fifteen minutes as Inspector Voss struggles with euphemisms for murder are very enjoyable. But thereafter the comedy becomes sparser and sparser (although I loved the line - “the location is abominable but the air conditioning is excellent”). This would be okay if one felt the sense of sinister threat which seems to be implied by the text, and certainly by the final speeches, but somehow I just didn't. The ending struck me as preachy, and fell flat.

There are also problems with the performances. The centre of the play is that all the characters are finely balanced between sanity and madness and most of them are at the moment coming across as neither sufficiently mad nor sufficiently sane but too much on one level. Exceptions here are John Ramm's Detective Inspector (though he is perhaps assisted by mostly being the straight man to the lunatics) and Joanna Brooke's Nurse Boll who brings just the right implication of craziness into her manner and delivery. The three physicists of the title – Justin Salinger's Newton, Paul Bhattacharjee's Einstein and John Heffernan's Mobius are trying hard and all have some good stretches of delivery and manner – with a few more performances they may get it more completely right and this will probably help to carry the whole thing more successfully.

This leaves Sophie Thompson's Dr von Zahnd and Miranda Raison's Nurse Monika. The show's payoff depends on Thompson. I don't want to spoil the plot, but I found her delivery a real problem. Clearly the character is supposed from the outset to be a bit peculiar, but I felt Thompson was overdoing it and in consequence when the transformation came it didn't hit hard enough. Raison's insanity is love but her performance felt overblown to me – acted rather than natural. Her costuming did convince me that there may be something in this idea of a nurse's uniform as a sexy costume, but I'm also not sure that this wasn't part of the problem. In the second act Mobius refers to her grace – it seems to him that she should be almost other wordly and she just doesn't come across in this way.

Apart from that particular costume question the design (by Robert Jones) and music can't be faulted. The Donmar is typically transformed, this time into a place of over-white walls and furniture and whoever is providing Einstein's not perfect violin playing deserves significant credit.

Overall though this is just a rather uneven evening. I neither laughed enough, nor felt sufficiently chilled by the conclusion. There is promise in the performances and interest in the play, but the whole needs more work.

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