Writer: Simon Stephens
Director: Marianne Elliot
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that it is impossible to know both the position and the velocity of an object; the more we focus on the object’s position the less we know about its momentum. It’s not that our measuring tools are inadequate, but that there is some uncertainty inherent in nature. Fortunately, in Simon Stephens’ new play uncertainty looks glorious and, thankfully, unscientific.
In this 90-minute two-hander Kenneth Cranham, still sprightly for his 72 years, plays Alex Priest, a butcher, who is about to shut up shop for good as no one buys any meat from him nowadays except for a few sausages. He’s only been in love once, decades ago, with Joanne, who quickly fell in love with someone else. His older sister died when she was still a child, and his parents died young too, within months of each other. Priest is alone, and while it seems that he may be slowly packing up his life, Cranham plays him still thirsty for new experience, and we can just about believe that this butcher writes poetry and has enjoyed every music genre including dub-step and grime.
When Georgie barges into his life, other vistas open up in his future. His life becomes thrillingly uncertain. Anne-Marie Duff is perfect as 40-something American Georgie who proclaims she is ‘exhausting, but captivating’. Duff makes sure that Georgie’s flightiness and brashness never alienate the audience; despite her selfishness we remain interested in her, and, moreover, interested in why she wants to befriend a man nearly twice her age. Is she after his money, or is she really attracted to the man who smells of Europe?
Stephens’ earlier plays have often eschewed optimism offering brutality instead. We had murder and incest in Motortown, people-trafficking in Three Kingdoms, a British Columbine in Punk Rock and the 7/7 bombings in Pornography. Such sensitive subject matter kept him on the peripheries of the West End with plays opening at the Royal Court or the Hammersmith Lyric. It was only Stephens’ adaptations of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and A Doll’s House that reached Theatreland proper. Heisenberg – with its tagline of ‘Surrender to the Unpredictable’ – is certainly more West End friendly and the playwright once known for ‘in-yer-face’ theatre appears to have mellowed with age.
And while the story of a old man falling in love with a younger woman may not be the most original story in the world – even Woody Allen seems to have given up on that plot – Marianne Elliott’s crisp direction and Bunny Christie’s sleek and stunning set revitalise and modernise this narrative. Tables and chairs appear from the floor while walls expand and contract creating vast concourses or cosy rooms. Inspired by light artists such as James Turrell, neon lights hold the silhouettes of the actors as if they are specimens to study in a laboratory. At other times the back of the stage shimmers with Rothkovian hues lending promise to the atomic tension between the two actors as Nils Frahm’s swirling music fills the space.
The more we watch the characters on stage the less we know where they are going, and Cranham and Duff are eminently watchable in this smart production of a play that premiered in New York in 2015. Life is unpredictable, and if we allowed it, it could be even more unpredictable. We should take a chance, like the butcher in this play, and then we might never know where we are going. An exciting proposition.
Runs until 6 January 2018 | Image: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg