Saturday 16 December 2017

Heisenberg: the Uncertainty Principle at Wyndham's, or, A Play Like a Broken Pencil

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 9th December 2017.

Simon Stephens is, it sadly seems, on a downward trajectory. I loved Port (magnificently revived at the National by Marianne Elliott a few years back). Birdland at the Royal Court was odd but interesting (and the gradual flooding of the stage was a real coup). But Carmen Disrupted at the Almeida was interminable. This new work benefits from stronger personnel, but as a play is equally poor.

The work is, possibly, about Georgie (Anne-Marie Duff) and Alex (Kenneth Cranham), their meeting at a railway station and the development of their relationship. I say seems to be because given the bare indeterminate setting and Georgie's self-confessed habit of lying I became rather doubtful about the veracity of any of it. There was a kernel of an interesting character in Alex and I wish the play had done more to explore him rather than wasting time on the unconvincingly over-the-top Georgie. The relationship fails to emotionally convince, and moments obviously intended to tug at the heart left me unmoved. There are also quite a number of dubious plot twists – it is particularly hard to believe given the present day setting that it has occurred to neither of them to try and track down Duff's alleged son by use of that little thing known as the internet. Some of the dialogue is painfully cliched – not even Anne-Marie Duff can save a line like “My sadness is deep enough to fill a well”.

Stephens would also like to persuade us that this narrative is illuminated by discussion of the Heisenberg Principle. I distrust plays that feel the need to explain the title in the main text. Here we get said principle explained to us twice – I didn't come out with any greater grasp of it than when I went in and I at least did not find that it illuminated the plot.

Marooned in this text Duff and Cranham do their best to bring it to life but are too often unsuccessful. Cranham benefits from having the more strongly written part, but I'm afraid this isn't saying much. Regular readers will know how much I admire director Marianne Elliott but this is an uncharacteristically weak piece of work. The episodes of movement interspersed between scenes slow things down and in their endeavour to lend emotional & intellectual punch to the proceedings only serve to illustrate its absence from the text. Her usual genius for finding powerful magic in touch and small gesture is also lacking here. Bunny Christie's bare white walled set – with the odd light effect at the back (courtesy Paule Constable) and the odd white bench or stool did not help either, serving to undermine what limited belief I had in the reality of the characters and their story.

Ultimately though I sympathise with actors and production team. The fact is this is one of those plays that shouldn't have made it to the stage. Given the exceptional work I've seen all those involved do in other contexts I rather doubt anybody could have made this text work. One to avoid.

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