Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 8 April 2023
After the Nazi defeat in 1945, the Allies flew ten of Germany’s leading nuclear scientists to the UK. They were interned at a farmhouse in Godmanchester, near Cambridge, for six months while they recorded their conversations, aiming to discover how close the Nazis had come to producing an atom bomb. While in captivity they heard the news of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs which, as holders of Nobel prizes for significant advances in nuclear technology, they had helped to enable. In January 1946 they were all released, and returned to their academic careers in Germany.
This scenario is a ready-made play, a situation where some of the greatest scientific minds of their time are confronted with the consequences of their personal and political actions. The transcripts of the Farm Hall recordings were published in the 1990s, and other plays have been produced using their contents. However, Katherine Moar’s play, which has its first full production at the Jermyn Street Theatre, makes good use of the material to create a compelling drama, in which a large cast is handled well.
Only six of the scientists are represented on stage, a sensible decision which gives each character enough room to develop. Moar boldly holds off discussing the war or nuclear weapons for several scenes, during which the men stage amateur drama, play games, bicker and try not to discuss what really matters. Reality intrudes when a newspaper reports the Soviet capture of parts of East Germany, where Bagge (Archie Backhouse)’s wife lives. The social tensions emerge between characters, and then the political ones. Support for Hitler varies among the group from disengagement (Heisenberg) to clear support (Diebner) and regret that the bomb was not built in time for Germany to use it.
The performers are an excellent group of actors, who play convincingly off one another. Julius D’Silva’s Diebner is awkward and unsociable, but likeable too, a portrait of man who convinced himself that the Nazis were essential to his career. So, in a way, did Heisenberg who Alan Cox plays with an ability to separate himself from the everyday that is both disarming and sinister. He charms his way around his leadership of Hitler’s nuclear weapons programme, leaving enough doubt about whether or not he deliberately worked to stop the bomb being made. Backhouse’s working class Bagge, a wired young man, has most to lose while his friend Weizsäcker (Daniel Boyd) is privileged and connected. Forbes Masson is the most likeable of the group as Hahne, the man who discovered nuclear fission and feels the weight of what he imagines could be 300,000 deaths at Hiroshima. David Yelland’s older Von Laue is difficult and prickly, and the most anti-Nazi of the lot.
Director Stephen Unwin manages the show well. He somehow manages to make the Jermyn Street Theatre’s tiny stage seem like a spacious living room, with plenty of room for all. Designer Ceci Calf’s dilapidated interior with semi-stripped William Morris wallpaper is very atmospheric, and nearly represents the end of the pre-war world. The heart of the play is a prolonged pause, as the cast waits for the 9pm radio bulletin with news of Hiroshima. They listen to Home Service light classical music as the minutes tick down, knowing that nothing will be the same once the clock strikes. There are no clear moral lessons from Moar’s play – the scientists did what they did through fear, expediency, selfishness and a desire to pretend everything was ok, much as people have always acted and always will. Only this time, the consequences would be greater than anything humans had encountered before.