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Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle review at Wyndham’s Theatre – ‘a lopsided two-hander’

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

First staged in New York in 2015, Simon Stephens’ two-hander, Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, fuses elements of romantic comedy with something more philosophical. Combining ideas lifted from the field of quantum physics – hence the title – with Stephens’ abiding love of music, it tells the story of two lonely people who forge an unlikely bond.

It begins with a kiss. Georgie, an American woman in her 40s who works as a receptionist at a London school, kisses Alex, a butcher in his 70s, claiming to have mistaken him for someone else. This turns out to be a fabrication. Georgie is somewhat loose with the truth. She’s also the kind of woman who’ll turn up at Alex’s place of work out of the blue in order to ask him on a date.

Kenneth Cranham’s Alex has led a steady but uneventful life. He was once in love but that was long ago, and he is simultaneously baffled, suspicious and delighted by the intensity of the younger woman’s interest in him. Anne-Marie Duff’s Georgie is altogether more volatile, a gabbler and a giggler who is given to suddenly screaming when the mood takes her. She has a son but it’s been some years since she last saw him and, for reasons that remain unclear, they are no longer in touch.

Director Marianne Elliott has collaborated with Stephens a number of times – including on his adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Together with designer Bunny Christie, Elliott places the couple in a large white box with shifting walls. 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. It’s effective and striking, but when the couple make love for the first time, and the walls start to shift more quickly while the back wall pulses red, it all starts to feel rather labial.

Cranham and Duff are both fine actors. His understated performance offsets her more frenzied presence and there’s a sense of connection between them. Duff, despite having to grapple with an American accent, is able to convey the deep-rooted sadness beneath the collection of tics and quirks of which Georgie’s character consists. But she’s still a frustratingly incomplete individual in comparison with him. This is partly because Georgie is given to making things up but also because, while Stephens may well have set out the subvert the older man/much younger woman romcom cliche, he ends up falling into the same traps. Georgie isn’t quite a textbook manic pixie dream girl, but she’s clearly drunk from the same cup.

This – and some of the clunkier lines about the nature of the universe – end up undermining the moments of genuine tenderness in this play about embracing unpredictability and using the eye-blink of time we have available to us to its fullest.

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UK premiere of Simon Stephens’ intermittently poignant if lopsided two-hander about chance, love and loneliness