Monday, 16 October 2017

Theatre review: Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Getting in on the Breaking Bad theme before Bryan Cranston himself arrives on the London stage, Marianne Elliott launches her new production company with Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle. But there's neither a real scientist nor a fictional drug kingpin to be seen because this is the latest play from Simon Stephens, a writer more than a little fond of cryptic titles whose connection to the subject matter is hard to pin down. 75-year-old butcher Alex (Kenneth Cranham) is minding his own business, listening to music on a bench in a train station, when 42-year-old American waitress Georgie (Anne-Marie Duff) kisses him on the back of the neck. She says she couldn't help it because he reminded her of her late husband, but she soon confesses that everything she said to him at first was a lie: She's actually a primary school receptionist who's never married but has a 19-year-old son, who's moved back to New Jersey to get away from her.

Naturally opening with a series of lies means it's hard to trust anything Georgie tells us about herself later, leaving us with some of the element of uncertainty from the title; as the two build an unlikely romance, Stephens wrong-foots the audience on some of the twists we might expect from the story.

There are a couple of elements to Heisenberg that I found were obstacles to settling into it - not least of all the fact that the generation-gap relationship featuring a much older man and younger woman is such a common, widely and rightly derided Hollywood staple, and I'm not convinced Stephens is giving us that new a twist on it here. There's also the suggestion of weaving scientific theory into an everyday story that's very Nick Payne, and the hope that this might be another Constellations is a hard one to live up to.

But given that I never really got over these obstacles the play has a lot to offer; even if the age gap is hard to swallow, Duff and Cranham are good enough that they sell it on chemistry alone, and the character of Georgie is intriguing - what happens when the Manic Pixie Dream Girl grows up? Andy compared it to the sort of low-key play you might see on the fringe and be pleasantly surprised by. And it would fit in very well there, but Elliott's production does take advantage of its profile and West End budget to add a bit of atmosphere and mystery to it. Bunny Christie's white box set has moving walls that leave the action feeling in flux, and Paule Constable's lighting helps create strong visuals and an ever-changing colour palate.

Between the scenes the two actors have understated moments of almost dance-like movement - I wasn't surprised to see Steven Hoggett's name among the creatives. All in all this is curiously understated for a West End show and not entirely satisfying on its own terms, but an interesting way for Elliott to start a new venture, and certainly a great display from the two actors.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle by Simon Stephens is booking until the 6th of January at Wyndham's Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg.

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