Wyndham’s Theatre, London – until 6 January 2018
A FINE ROMANCE? … A quick quantum-mechanics lesson (though this is not a play about science). The Heisenberg principle asserts that there is a limit to knowing what will happen to the position of a particle, even if you know its momentum. As a physicist explains in the programme, “vagueness is built into nature…it is simply now knowable”. The author Simon Stephens adds the metaphor of music, in which we cannot know which note comes next. Surprise is good. Uncertainty is life. OK?
Stephens’ own work, knotty and perverse, is rarely as universally loved as his brilliant adaptations like A Doll’s House and that Dog In The Night-Time. This one has been received with respect, but it was hard to help feeling that this 80-minute two-hander represents one of those cases where an immensity of theatrical talent gets heaped on a work so weightless that it would crumble to dust without that exoskeleton of high craft and sincerity.
For here are two fine-tuned and beautiful actors of great soul, Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff; add the marvellous director Marianne Elliott, the abstract design beauty of Bunny Christie’s set, marvels of atmospheric lighting (Paule Constable) and smooth stage engineering which can pop up and vanish pieces of furniture to create a dreamlike atmosphere. Add the reassuring pretensions of theoretical physics and you have a real chin-stroker, blaring “Important! Seminal!” at you and daring you to contradict it.
It is a sort of love story: absurdist and asymmetric. It begins when – I suppose like particles colliding – blonde American Georgie kisses a total stranger on the back of his neck at St Pancras. She is 37 and claims to be an Ottolenghi waitress (Hmm. Very Islington) but is a school secretary. He is 75, a Bach-loving butcher who likes his job because he enjoys how animals fit together with “seams”. A horrid memory arose of this author’s’ “Morning” at Edinburgh, all murderous teenagers prodding a flyblown corpse and snarling ““All music is shit and all art is shit and all television is shit and all sport is shit…there is only terror. There is no hope”. For a while I feared that he was going to dismember her.
But no. The pair sleep together, rather beautifully choreographed (the movement is dreamlike, slo-mo, graceful). She complains about his fridge and asks him for £15k to find her son in New Jersey. At which point one’s inner pedant protests that you can get a NorwegianAir return via Reykjavik for £700 quid , and airbnb for ages on a thousand, so it’s a bit steep. But his response, after a while, has grace. Unlikely grace, but Cranham can make you believe anything.
For all the plonking significance it’s the good old two-lonely-people-odd-couple tale, which as rom-com writers know depends on charm. This Cranham bestows on his elderly character with ease; but Anne-Marie Duff is given a near-impossible job finding it in hers. Georgie is a toxic variant on the kooky-yet-troubled heroine from Hepburn to Goldie Hawn, only more annoying. She is what the Germans beautifully call an ich-bin-so – every rudeness airily dismissed with “It’s just something that I do” “I’m like that” and a flirty, hipswivelly “Do you find me exhausting but captivating?”. Only Duff’s ability to drill down to the sincerity of pain and damage finally redeems her. And then only just.
For the relationship does, in the end, become touching. Though old Alex’s devotion – enchantingly expressed by the glorious Cranham in the best and final speech – depends more on her sexual availability than a feminist would like. The idea that a young woman would adore “clumsy” sex with an old man wrinkled “like Europe” is a bit Woody Allen for my taste. And it is a pity: a similar Heisenberg collision between our hero and someone less physically foxy might be, in the end, more moving.
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to 6 jan