FringeReview UK 2023
A stunningly confident debut. My outstanding play of the year so far.
Directed by Stephen Unwin, Set and Costume Designed by Ceci Calf, Lighting Design Ben Ormerod, Sound Designer John Leonard, Casting Director Ginny Schiller CDG, Assistant Director Millie Gaston,
Stage Manager Daisy Francis-Bryden, ASM Fae Hochgemuth, Lighting Programmer Jodie Underwood, Costume Supervisor Lauren Savill.
Programme Designer Ciaran Walsh for Ciwa Design. Production & Rehearsal Photographer Steve Gregson, PR David Burns
Till April 8th
Cambridgeshire, July 1945. Six German nuclear scientists from the Uranverein (Uranium Club) are genteelly squirelled away – or holed up – in a rackety old manor. Their offstage captor Major Rittner is occasionally importuned (a broken piano arrives like an emissary) but never of course strides on. Are they to be saved or shot?
Out of this Godot-induced swirl Katherine Moar prefixes her play with Michael Frayn’s postscript to his own Copenhagen: ‘The story of Farm Hall is another complete play in itself.’ Her Farm Hall though delighting in one shared protagonist’s uncertainty, more complements Frayn’s work than acts as any directed footnote to it. It’s a stunningly confident debut, directed with sure-footed inevitability over 90 minutes by Stephen Unwin.
All the men have to read is Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Is there anyone there? As it happens, yes – of course they’re being bugged. It’s a work based on the Farm Hall transcripts declassified in 1992, indeed with two virtuosic passages discussing the efficacy of U235: entertaining, even exhilaratingly clear. Moar’s never pedantic.
Moar’s skill is both witty and profound. So the notion of disembodied listening is riffed as the scientists first stumble through an amateur reading of Blithe Spirit, one of few books available apart from one on mushrooms. But it fits the play’s trope of stripping artifice. Then board games see the ostracisation of the unabashed Nazi Diebner (Julius D’Silva) as degrees of complicity are laid out.
Next kultur as the broken piano’s repaired by the anti-Nazis Von Laue (David Yelland) and Hahn (Forbes Masson), both resolutely uncompetitive as is pointed out by the younger Weizsacker (Daniel Boyd).
Hitler ensured inefficient competition amongst groups, and most scientists fell for it; and they much preferred rockets anyway. It’s where leader of the group Heisenberg (Alan Cox) points out his young disciples Weizsacker and Bagge (Archie Backhouse) are, being young, most competitive of all. All played over Schubert’s The Trout and his last piano sonata in John Leonard’s cleverly terraced sound design, foregrounding and backgrounding music.
And that’s where sides are taken. There’s accusatory Von Laue: Yelland the model of liberal German rectitude, virtue-signalling with a ramrod; but as Heisenberg points out, protected by his eminence. To complement and soften him there’s Masson’s conciliatory, gentle Hahn, tortured as his own discovery of fission vaporises thousands.
A hierarchy of guilt is argued. D’Silva’s ostracised Diebner in his frank admission counterpoints Von Laue, and D’Silva relishes his winning a grudging respect for his unblinkered approach, by degrees restating his own authority, particularly in a comic letters-censorship game.
The locksmith son’s Bagge being put up for the Nazi party -‘by his mother’ protests Heisenberg – is almost equally compromised, with Backhouse convincingly volatile and preppy: terrified for his girlfriend in the Russian zone, and by degrees coming to terms with guilt. Weizsacker’s diplomatic family’s slipperiness saves him. Boyd plays him like a winningly suave young Cambridge scientist, straight out of C P Snow. And C P Taylor’s Good naturally looms. Again positioning each character within their circumstances – Weizsacker somehow believing himself so above it he can speculate on what might have happened had the Germans obtained the bomb – is deft and unforced. Then you find that Weizsacker later went on to actually develop theories of ur-alternatives, a sort of Heisenberg-ish Either-Or. And Heisenberg with those Himmler connections, Von Laue probes?
This though is another instance of Moar’s skill. It’s the jockeying for innocence that fuels the work’s core theme, till the six are brought to a shocked standstill as the first atomic bomb’s dropped.
Cox of course as with Frayn’s Heisenberg follows the ambiguity of his own Uncertainty Principle right to the end. Indeed he seems to know more than the others. Apparently inscrutable (Moar cleverly suggests a reason) he also has an extensive last word. Cox’s possum-like withholdings, parrying Von Laue and Diebner’s needles, is both unsettling and fascinating.
Ceci Calf’s set with fireplace and adjacent torn wallpaper, its comfy old furniture, the rackety stripped upright piano and threadbare wartime economy (and tweedy costumes) is one of the richest small sets even JST have sported recently. Dramatically, the continual shuffling of ensemble, duets, trios and full six-pack, mean there’s a playful shift of dialogue, allegiances, grievances and confidences. It’s one of the many reasons this debut is my outstanding play of the year so far.