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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Vaudeville Theatre


  Ph: Keith Pattison

This will surely go down in history as the best scientific biodrama to hit the West End since Michael Frayn's Copenhagen in the late 1990s. What makes Oppenheimer a really startling triumph is that the writer, Tom Morton-Smith, has been, until now, no household name. His track record? Small-scale fringe productions that you could count on the fingers of one hand. 
So, here's to the RSC for their talent-spotting – commissioning and premiering a play that impressively manages to trace the rise and fallout of J. Robert Oppenheimer (John Heffernan), the father of the atomic bomb, within the epic geopolitical framework of WWII and the Cold War. This is a richly deserved transfer from the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
By generating a very positive kind of high energy at curtain-up, director Angus Jackson counters any sense of impending doom and gloominess. It's the mid-1930s, we're in the United States, and Oppenheimer's academic buddies – a tweedy but boho bunch – are partying at his home. Twirling to jazz music, they're avidly espousing Communist ideals, fundraising for that cause and climbing on the piano to make impassioned speeches about combatting the rise of Fascism in Europe. Heffernan's Oppenheimer drifts amongst them, smiling quietly, looking delicate or perhaps slightly aloof.
The script is, granted, not without flaws. Proliferating characters mean you may sometimes be struggling to work out who's who. And some cameo soliloquies are experimentally poetic but slightly strained, including one by the notorious bomb known as Little Boy, suddenly personified. 
However, Jackson's fluidly choreographed scenes ensure the play's interspersed mini-lectures never feel like a slog. Oppenheimer's team of researchers uses the stage floor like a blackboard for speedily chalked equations. Meanwhile, Heffernan steps forward and tells the audience, with charming wit, about uranium's chemical properties or his philosophy of always questioning what we believe. His portrait of Oppenheimer, crucially, grows evermore intriguing: a mercurial and morally complicated personality, a puzzle inspiring uncertainty.
On hearing that German scientists could be developing Nazi weapons involving atomic fission, Oppenheimer agrees, with alacrity, to run the Los Alamos lab for the military Manhattan Project – displaying patriotism but flashes of cold personal ambition too. Under political pressure and surveillance, he is prepared to fracture close bonds with his own brother, with blacklisted “pinko” colleagues and lovers. And of course, the Manhattan Project ultimately leads to the devastating strikes on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Poignantly, even while he says that he has a core of iron, Heffernan’s Oppenheimer subtly conveys rising panic and slow-burning regrets, vestiges of acute tenderness and an unspoken horror at what he has unleashed. His performance is absolutely outstanding, and frankly, it’d be a crying shame if it didn’t win him a clutch of awards. I wouldn’t be surprised if Morton-Smith’s script isn’t adapted for the screen as well, to add to The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything – the recent acclaimed biopics of the scientists Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking. Highly recommended.


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