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A CurtainUp London Review
by Brian Clover
Richard Feynman, one of the many step-fathers of the Atom Bomb, is in a state of confusion in a New Mexico hotel bedroom. Should he hang himself, or go to sleep? His state of uncertainty, we quickly perceive, is like the nucleus of one of the atoms he is trying to control. And like the nucleus he attracts passing characters who then orbit eccentrically around him. The pretty blonde, the handsome boy, the fat detective, each mistakes the troubled physicist for someone else, with farcical results.
But how unstable is Dick Feynman? And why? If you already know anything about the man you already have the answers. If you don't, you may find the whole passages of this play rather hard going. Instead of action we are treated to mini-lectures on a wide range of topics from the difference between frogs and toads, the nature of identity, the deconstruction of popular cinema, the meaning of betrayal, the pubertal development of Elizabeth Taylor and - what was it again? oh yes -- relativity theory. However interesting these may be in themselves, they do distract from what forward movement there is in the play.
Dick's atomic personality not only draws people to him, but inspires them to tell him about their lives in considerable detail. This pushes plausibility out of the window. The young woman, so desperate to lose her virginity to a handsome sailor, switches her affections to Dick in moments. The handsome sailor himself favours Dick with his not specially interesting life story then strips off in front of him. The fat dim detective turned security man seems to have wandered in from a Marx Brothers movie.
Clever Dick is not a universe away from Terry Johnson's Insignificance in its form and ambitions. But when it tries to add Tom Stoppard's dazzling absurdism and Michael Frayn's passionate profundity to the mix, the intellectual cargo is too much for the frail structure that has to sail with it. Too often one character delivers a monologue while others stand frozen until it is finished. Whittell, directing his own play, injects moments of animation - jack in a box farce business, a gun, and two demonstrations of gravity, one involving a bouncing nun - but these only underline the essential stasis of his play. The final key change into genuine sentiment is too compromised by the preceding farce to work as it should.
However, the cast give performances of energy and sensitivity, particularly Adrian Rawlins as Dick, who makes his character's anguished intelligence believable, like Larry David in an extremity of insomnia. Jennifer Higham's Matilda almost persuades us she loves frogs and Einstein. Michael Taylor's set is remarkable.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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