Oppenheimer Fizzes With Fission And Fury

By Stuart Black Last edited 42 months ago
Oppenheimer Fizzes With Fission And Fury ★★★★☆ 4

Photo by Keith Pattison.

Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

This new play by Tom Morton-Smith is a meaty feast of big ideas and bigger historical characters, centring around J Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who delivered the atomic bomb to the US Army in the 1940s.

He’s a fascinating character, both ambitious and arrogant, yet semi-aware of his shortcomings and rightly conflicted by the hellish power he and his tetchy team are about to unleash on the world. John Heffernan inhabits the central role, managing to be both charismatic and cut-throat, strident and nerdy, often all at the same time. He’s perfectly cast, looking like a creature of the period with his lightbulb-like head and frizzy hair suggesting too many ideas pulsing through the filaments inside.

Oppie has a swagger in public, but he's less commanding in his private life where he’s challenged by two women who zip around him like super-charged electrons — Thomasin Rand as his wife, and Catherine Steadman as a lover from his Communist days, both excellent.

Also impressive is the supporting cast of socially-awkward scientists and soldiers asked to hoist the world up onto their shoulders. As they rub against each other, scribbling formulae across the stage floor and walls, we get mini-lectures on the structure of atoms, Hungarian jokes and diatribes about how Dashiell Hammett's detective fiction has been misread. However, their gee-whizz enthusiasm as they embark on the Manhattan Project in 1939 soon hardens into steely competitiveness as the race against the Germans takes hold of their heads and points to one single terrifying conclusion.

The era is beautifully imagined with memorable design, spot-on costumes and terrific music by Grant Olding which holds together an epic vision sweeping from drunken cocktail parties in Berkeley to the bomb testing sites in the desert. It’s a three-hour play that fizzes with ideas and will make you want to learn more about the history of men asked to play god at the cost of their own humanity.

Oppenheimer runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until 23 May. Tickets £12.50-65. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.

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Last Updated 01 April 2015