Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle review

Theatre, Drama
2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham can’t salvage this rare misfire from the prolific Simon Stephens

Playwright Simon Stephens is a man who has displayed an almost supernatural aptitude for having his cake and eating it.

On the one hand, he flies in the face of commercialism with boldly avant-garde works like ‘Pornography’, ‘Three Kingdoms’ and this year’s trippy ‘Nuclear War’.

On the other, he’s won a brace of Oliviers and presumably made a pretty penny with a more accessible strand of work, notably his long-running West End adaptation of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’.

That these two versions of Stephens rarely seem to really get in each other’s way is really quite impressive. But his culty Euro-cool must finally take some collateral damage in ‘Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle’, a dismal MOR wank fantasy that’s comfortably his worst play – albeit one somewhat redeemed by flashes of brilliance in the writing and an exemplary cast in Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham.

He is Alex, a butcher with an idiosyncratic bachelor’s lifestyle and an impressively eclectic music collection. She is Georgie: to all intents and purposes, a manic pixie dreamgirl. She’s a brash, charming, much younger (a 25-year age difference between the actors) American with Secrets To Hide who randomly picks Alex out at a public space and ends up propositioning the hell out of him (as you do).

The title alludes to some chats between them about embracing the unknowability of life. But really this dimension feels of glancing importance at best (and at worst ironic, given the predictability of the story).

Basically, you’re stuck following Georgie and Alex’s blossoming relationship, which largely consists of him being inscrutable and her being annoying.

They are both very, very good actors and Cranham is particularly great, imbuing Alex with a somehow compassionate poker face. Duff is saddled with the more thankless task: Georgie is a generic sexy kook made even more infuriating by the essentially unnecessary fact of her Americanness (the play premiered off-Broadway a couple of years back – which presumably explains her nationality). She retains her usual, sleepy-eyed intensity, but 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.

There are great flashes in the script, during which it rises far above the sort of generic romcom fare it apes: Alex’s disconcerting explanation of what it is he likes about butchery; even her funny, terse observation on Müllerlight feels like an echo of a better show.

‘Curious Incident…’ director Marianne Elliott’s spare, vivid production, with its dazzling light-based set from Bunny Christie and occasionally overwhelming Nils Frahm score, is blessedly chintz-free. But she’s the one who programmed ‘Heisenberg’ as the opener to her new West End season of work – it feels like a peculiar opening statement.

All this accepted, ‘Heisenberg’ clearly isn’t aimed at the ‘Pornography’ audience, and probably has considerably more general appeal. It’s fine if you like that kind of thing – but I don’t, and this is a playwright capable of far better.

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