Theatre review: Science play only missing a vital spark

Copenhagen,The Lyceum

AS they say in shampoo commercials, here's the science bit: In 1927 German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg developed the Uncertainty principle.

Often it is described in layman's terms as the very act of observation distorting the outcome of that which is being observed.

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Much like the punters at a football match throwing things on to the pitch midplay and causing the players to alter their intended course thus sending the game in a whole new direction.

While this explanation is simplistic and, from the perspective of a theoretical physicist, somewhat inaccurate, it's a good vantage point from which to begin to understand the technicalities and themes underlying Michael Frayn's acclaimed 1998 play Copenhagen.

And technicalities and themes there are a plenty. So many, in fact, that the first act is more of a university lecture in advanced physics and script structuring than the abstract philosophical contemplation of the moral vagaries of building an atomic bomb, and whose idea that might have been in the first place, that it purports to be.

The action centres on the events of a balmy autumnal evening in occupied Denmark circa 1941. Except, from the perspective of the afterlife limbo Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe and Heisenberg inhabit, no-one can quite remember what exactly happened.

So, in the real life habit of half-Jewish "Pope of Physicists" Bohr, the characters re-draft the conversation a number of times over the course of the play until a suitable version of events is agreed upon.

Yet, as with those post-match pundits you find down the pub dissecting their players' performances, Bohr, Margrethe and Heisenberg get tangled up in what could have been if events had taken a different course and Heisenberg had succeeded in creating a nuclear bomb in wartime Germany. All refreshingly heady stuff for a Saturday night at the Lyceum, particularly when you can leave smug in the knowledge that you've learnt more about nuclear fission in two hours than Einstein and co discovered in two decades.

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Yet, for all that education and structural skill, the production communicates all the warmth of a nuclear winter. Where Frayn has succeeded in writing a technically brilliant play, he has paid the price in under-developed intimacy and over developed verbiage. Reading wonderfully as a novella, in the same vein as Longitude and The Perfect Storm, it's almost as if so much energy has been expended on espousing profound thought that the script's language has taken a back seat to the message.

The actors seemed so focused on conveying the words and meaning in the script that the familial bonds and anxiety the characters are meant to have shared were little in evidence. The set also mirrors this problem, so grounded in a sparse, beige limbo is it that there is nothing homely or familiar to earth an audience grappling with abstract ideas.

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Director Tony Cownie's touch is light, encouraging physicality in the performers and dividing the space on stage between Heisenberg and Bohrs beautifully.

It's just a shame those qualities have been lost to the writer's own literal uncertainty.

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