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Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle at Wyndham’s Theatre – review round-up

Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham in Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
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If there was an Olivier for most intimidating play title, Simon Stephens’ new two-hander would be a shoo-in. Fret not, as Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, which arrives in the West End after its 2015 Broadway premiere in a new production from Marianne Elliott, has very little to do with theoretical physics.

Elliott’s production, the debut show from her new company Elliott and Harper, stars Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff as a mismatched couple, riffing on life, love, and everything in between as it follows their unlikely relationship. It’s at Wyndham’s until January 6, 2018.

Stephens and Elliott have collaborated before, notably on the phenomenally successful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and both have a stack of hits under their arms. Elliott directed the National’s Broadway-bound Angels in America in May. Stephens’ last UK outing was a bit more low-key: the baffling, experimental mini-play Nuclear War, at the Royal Court in April.

But does Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle catch fire like a bunsen burner, or fizzle out like an experiment gone wrong? Can Elliott replicate the rampant success of War Horse, Curious Incident and Angels in America, or does her production need more time in the lab? Do Duff and Cranham provide the requisite chemistry, or are they on different wavelengths entirely? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle – A Failed Experiment

Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham in Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff in Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Stephens’ work generally flits between boldly experimental ‘Eurotheatre’ – he was behind 2012’s divisive Three Kingdoms – and wildly successful populist adaptations – as well as reworking Curious Incident, he updated A Doll’s House for Carrie Cracknell in 2012. What has he produced here?

“The title makes it sound as if it might be a lesson in quantum physics,” writes Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★). “Instead it’s a portrait of an unlikely relationship. Georgie is an American in her forties, a school receptionist who jokes that she’s an assassin. Alex is a butcher in his seventies, used to being self-contained.”

“Physics becomes a metaphor for the vagaries of existence – for the blurriness, uncertainty and lack of predictability in nature and in all human relationships,” adds Sarah Crompton (What’s On Stage, ★★★). “Stephens also weaves Bach and the nature of music into the mix, in order to focus on his essential interest – human behaviour.”

Most critics find Stephens’ cocktail of romcom and theoretical physics leaves a sour taste. Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★) calls it “a dismal MOR wank fantasy that’s comfortably his worst play” and Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) labels it “a slender romantic fable that uses science to provide a bit of intellectual stiffening”.

“This is a very simple play posing as something more sophisticated,” asserts Ann Treneman (Times, ★★). “It’s desperate to be a cool science play but is really a dressed up version of boy-meets-girl.”

“It was hard to help feeling that this 80-minute two-hander represents one of those cases where an immensity of theatrical talent gets heaped on a work so weightless that it would crumble to dust without that exoskeleton of high craft and sincerity,” chimes Libby Purves (TheatreCat, ★★★).

It’s “oddly predictable” and “clunkily portentous” according to Hitchings, “an easy-to-chew theatrical morsel” according to Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★), and “sounds like a self-help manual” at times, according to Aleks Sierz (The Arts Desk, ★★★).

Not all are so damning. Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★) noticed “moments of genuine tenderness”, Will Longman (London Theatre, ★★★★) admired this “small burst of an emotional play” and Crompton enjoyed “plenty of wry humour”.
Most, though, concur with Lukowski: “This is a playwright capable of far better,” he writes.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle – Sheer Chemistry

Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham in Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg
Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham in Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham are two of the most celebrated actors on the British stage. He won an Olivier in 2015 for his role in Florian Zeller’s The Father; she garnered acclaim for turns in Husbands and Sons and Oil, and was widely considered the best thing about DC Moore’s disastrous Common at the National this Summer. But do they both impress here?

Almost all the critics think they’re great, with Crompton writing that they both supply “performances of physical and emotional grace”, Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★) confirming that they “have superb chemistry”, and Purves labelling them “two fine-tuned and beautiful actors of great soul.”

“Duff’s performance gives us the full emotional spectrum,” writes Billington. “One moment she seems almost frenziedly animated and wild-eyed; the next she pulls her hair back, suddenly turning into a sad-eyed, strait-laced primary school receptionist.”

“You’re never sure where you are with her, whether she’s inventing stories or lurching between insecurity and unabashed forwardness,” concurs Nick Wells (Radio Times, ★★★★), while Taylor is impressed by how she “brilliantly suggests the deep hinterland of hurt behind the woman’s volatility”.

“Duff, despite having to grapple with an American accent, is able to convey the deep-rooted sadness beneath the collection of tics and quirks,” agrees Tripney. “But she’s still a frustratingly incomplete individual.”

“While Stephens may well have set out to subvert the older man/younger woman romcom cliche, he ends up falling into the same traps,” she explains. “Georgie isn’t quite a textbook manic pixie dream girl, but she’s clearly drunk from the same cup.”

“It’s hard to get over the fact that the character is founded on the iffy cultural trope of the hot younger woman who wants to bang the older man,” echoes Lukowski.

“If there’s something cherishable about the evening, it’s the way Cranaham beautifully charts his character’s shift from reticence to release, like a grumpy cat that warily rolls over to let its tummy be tickled by a stranger,” argues Cavendish.

“Cranham is particularly great, imbuing Alex with a somehow compassionate poker face,” agrees Lukowski, while Billington praises how Cranham “movingly shows a stolid, self-reliant and withdrawn man, inured to disappointment, gradually coming to life and revealing his long-suppressed friskiness”.

Sierz sounds a less enthusiastic note: “Duff’s accent is unlike any American I have ever heard, and Cranham indulges his Teddy Bear persona a bit too readily,” he writes.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle – Stunning Science

Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham in Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle. Photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Duff and Cranham do great work with some pretty tough material from Stephens, but how much does director Elliott help them in this first production from her new company? Is it a sign of good things to come?

It’s nice to look at, that’s for sure. Sierz finds it “ravishingly lovely”, Cavendish calls it “little less than gorgeous” and Lukowski rejoices in a show that’s “blessedly chintz-free”.

“Together with designer Bunny Christie, Elliott places the couple in a large white box with shifting walls,” explains Tripney. “Sometimes the box is roomy and open; sometimes the walls close in on the characters. Lighting designer Paule Constable saturates this space with colour in order to accentuate the play’s emotional notes.”

“Each scene is drenched in colour, from the cool greyness of the railway station to the orange red of a seductive meeting,” adds Sierz. “Passion burns brighter red, but with a bluish hue of detumescence. Deeper blue tones of sadness accompany crying, while a deep green lights up a risky idea.”

It’s a design that “works wonderfully well” according to Wells, “illustrates the infinite strangeness of human experience” according to Marianka Swain (Broadway World, ★★★), and is simply “dazzling” according to Lukowski.

It’s “achingly lovely,” writes Cavendish, before observing that “the visual tricksiness speaks volumes about the puff-of-smoke nature of the thing”.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle – Is it any good?

It’s no Curious Incident, that’s for sure. Stephens’ play, something of a hit on Broadway, has not impressed the critics over here. Reviews complain of predictability, stereotyping, pretentiousness, and a fairly slight romance posing as something more profound – a rare dud from a prolific playwright.

Elliott’s production is rescued, most concur, by two strong performances from Duff and Cranham, and by Christie’s strikingly beautiful design. The relatively few stars on offer – two and three-star reviews abound – have come out for them, it seems.

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