COPENHAGEN      Minerva, Chichester

               The excitement of scientists transcends borders and forges passionate alliances and gratitudes.  But how can it,  when a devastating new power hovers at the edge of human understanding,  and warring nations might  use it?  In the 1920s and 30s nuclear science was roaring ahead:   physicists across Europe  met at conferences, talked, argued, teased out discoveries about energy and light and waves and particles, rejoiced in the new alchemy.    Then came Hitler’s war: hard to be a friend across hostile borders,  tantalizing to  wonder what progress old colleagues are making.

          Michael Frayn’s wonderful, tense,  humane play is about two such friends.   The German Werner Heisenberg had riskily supported Einstein’s theoretical work  (dismissed as “Jewish science”)  but despite being sneered at as a “White Jew” for it,  was tolerated as a valuable asset , unlike others such as Einstein himself.   But in 1941  Heisenberg visited his old friend Niels Bohr and his wife in Copenhagen.     Nobody knows why.   But both were working on nuclear fission,  the key to what became the horror of Hiroshima.    

        In a bare circle of light  we see the two men and Margrethe Bohr as ghosts in an afterlife,  talking out why he might have come, enacting three versions of that evening.  It is awkward, of course: Denmark was under harsh Nazi occupation, Bohr being watched.  But they had been friends, Heisenberg almost an extra son to the couple: they worked together,  walked, skied,  took Bohr’s children to the beach, . Warm laughter flares in reminiscence. But why did he come?  What was said on the brief walk , from which Bohr came back angry?  DId the German come to warn, to ask advice scientific or ethical,   or to fish for information the Allied nuclear programme?   Did Germany fail to make the atom Bomb and devastate London and Paris because of  a scientist’s moral scruples,  or because of his failure to make a key calculation in kilogrammes?


      Frayn cannot answer.  But round go the conversations:  Paul Jesson a peppery, patriarchal Bohr,  Charles Edwards as Heisenberg:  perfect in his fading boyishness, movingly awkward, loving his fatherland but aware of its evil.  Patricia Hodge is a devastating Margarethe,   sardonically observing the men and outspokenly aware of the horror they might unleash by taking the idea fission one step further.  They both talk complementarity, particle uncertainty,  chain reactions, critical mass, old arguments.   She says flatly,  “The shining springtime of the 1920s produced a machine to kill every man, woman and child in the world”. 

      The play, perfectly realized here, is neat in physics metaphors, profound in ethical philosophy, sharp and sometimes funny in its human insight.    But it is more than clever. When the three ghosts at last stand in the circle of  dimming light,  you shed a tear.  Not just for the horror that science unleashed on us,  but for human love,  curiosity, and  the burden which politicians place on innocent scientists who only want to know…  

to 22 sept


THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE            Park Theatre, N

We’ve just had Edward and Freddie Fox as father and son in an Ideal Husband, so now here’s a mother and daughter in Jim Cartwright’s tale of a drunken mother and her boyfriend,  who exploit a girl’s gift for singing like the divas.    Rafaella Hutchinson  is  LV – “Little Voice” –  nicknamed for her shyness.  She is grieving for her dead father, tending his previous vinyl collection and channelling the pain and yearning of the songs.     When she sings “The man who got away”, hairs rise on your neck.    But face to face with the boorish agent (Kevin McMonagle splendid in a bad brown suit),  she is a terrified, damaged rabbit, shoved at a club microphone in an exploded-custard frock, abused until she explodes.    

         Hutchinson  has a fine voice and air of inward sorrow, but it must be admitted that if anyone carries the show it is her Mum:   Sally George as Marie: a  crazy, slaggy, high-voltage menace . She enters with a shriek,  lurches round the set and summons her lover with “Coom on, let’s roll around!”  She’s  a victim too: dead-end job,   toy of careless men,  frustratedly uncomprehending of her quiet late husband, and afflicted by so much destructive unfocused energy that a few years later she’d be on Ritalin.    But she is also a classic monster.

          With Jane Horrocks as LV it became a hit film with its themes of showbiz, manipulation and family misery.   But in this small space, as the crackling house wiring becomes tacky club lights,  what you feel more intimately is the howling emotional need for beauty.  Even big slobby Sadie , the mother’s neighbour and doormat, is briefly alone with the private singing,  and Jamie-Rose Monk gets  two real, fat tears rolling down her cheeks.  Sweet young Billy the telephone engineer  (Linford Johnson) finds his beauty in light,  the Blackpool illuminations.  In the final moments amid the ashes, song and light come together to take LV over the rainbow.  Lovely. 

too 22 sept     rating four 

SWEET CHARITY              Watermill Theatre,  Nr Newbury


     It’s a hot night at the Fandango club, the dance-hostesses thrusting and beckoning, belting out “Hey big spender!”. It’s business, not love.  Except for little Charity Hope Valentine,  who soldiers on trustfully seeking true love,   armed only with a belting voice and unquenchable humour.   Gemma Sutton is a pocket phenomenon,  sweet-faced and resolutely optimistic in  contrast to her taller, mockingly comradely colleagues (flame-haired Vivien Carter is  one to watch: a sarcastic, sardonic Nickie).  Paul Hart’s cast are an ever-moving  orchestra of actor-musicians:    sexy on the  sax, , foxy on the flute , tearing  it with a trumpet.  They wheel around the tiny stage, reflecting the aggressive sexy poses of the original Bob Fosse choreography (despite its  more sentimental edge, this 1966 show by Neil Simon and Cy Coleman is a clear cousin of Chicago).  There are neat musical jokes : an instrument suddenly handed to a character in the nick of time for their solo, bad boyfriend Charlie with a piccolo as Charity follows him round the stage like one of the Pied Piper’s rats.  


        When I saw it in the West End my companion left at the interval,  saying that musicals were all very well but“Why must they make a song and dance about everything”.   She had a point. For all its brassy exuberance, the first half keeps erupting into big numbers without moving the story on,  except for an empty farcical sequence where Charity hides in a film star’s closet.  But the love story develops with the Woody-Allenish geek boyfriend Oscar,  as a neat set of mirrored walls rolls us from place to place making us a club audience or comrades in  the dressing-room.    

         In the original Fellini film the heroine was a streetwalker, who he described as “fragile, tender and unfortunate” (some chaps like their women that way).  Neil Simon’s cleverness is in making her funny and tougher,   laughing  at “the fickle finger of fate”, bobbing up like a cork in the sour swamp of  gropey men.     Although Hart has updated it to  now, it hardly needs that.  There will always be sexiness for sale  – “We don’t dance. We defend ourselves to music” says Nickie.  Girls will always get “stuck in the flypaper of life”.  Here’s to them all. 

too 18 sept    

rating three



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