Saturday, November 26

Oppenheimer – Manchester School of Theatre

The genesis of the ‘Manhattan’ project, to develop a nuclear bomb ahead of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II, is an irresistible subject for dramatists with film Director Christopher Nolan bringing his version of the story to the cinema screen next year. Writers have always found its chief architect, J. Robert Oppenheimer, a fascinating study and in 2015 Tom Morton-Smith succeeded where many of his illustrious predecessors (Arthur Miller amongst them) have failed, bringing him to life on stage. Manchester School of Theatre has further burnished its reputation with this excellent production, which manages to weave together the scientific, personal and political threads of the story into a wholly convincing tapestry that is Shakespearean in its breadth and illustration of both personal morality and human frailty.

We are introduced to Oppenheimer (Tommy Beswick) as everyone’s favourite Professor, gauche yet charismatic, you can almost see the angular awkwardness poking out from underneath his tweed jacket, ill at ease amongst his sophisticated Berkeley colleagues. However, what binds them all is a fierce anti fascist sentiment, supporting Republican Spain in the civil war through the Communist Party, the group eventually developing into the nascent military industrial complex of the United States in the ensuing decade. Over the three hours of the play, we watch Oppenheimer morph into driven, steely ambition so by the conclusion he has sacrificed his ideology, friends and family at the altar of his work and is left questioning the moral code which led him to his fate.

Given the weighty nature of the subject matter, Morton- Smith has managed to craft a play that has a lot of light as well as the inevitable shade, the clarity with which such dense topics as nuclear fission are dealt with is exemplary. Directors James Nickerson & Sean Aydon utilise a chalkboard floor which is scrawled upon to illustrate to the audience, at times we become students in a lecture, an effective device to alleviate the heavy exposition required in such a story. We see the conflicting pressures that Oppenheimer and his team of physicists are put under as a nuclear bomb slowly becomes a reality, their previous communist sympathies now weighing heavily against them as tensions between the USSR and United States grow. Oppenheimer clashes strongly with Edward Teller (Reuben Gotts), acting as the moral (and very funny) conscience of the team and there were consistently excellent performances throughout the cast in a variety of roles. The differing accents and personas proved no issue to these talented MST performers as they convincingly created a mid-century mileu, both Helena Braithwaite and Harry Bloor were particularly notable in this regard.

However, it is in the romantic relationships Oppenheimer develops that we find the real heart of the play, his relationships both with Jean Tatlock (Kelsey Ann Moebius) and latterly Kitty Harrison (Lara Rose Hancox) are superbly drawn in this production. In a plot that could easily skew towards machismo, it is good to see the two female characters taking centre stage and defining the central message. Moebius finds the neurotic centre of Tatlock to excellent effect, she is both strident and passionate but immensely brittle and her tragic fate is delineated beautifully. Hancox is the polar opposite in her portrayal of Harrison, the self confidence and single minded determination to snare Oppenheimer is apparent from the outset, the intimacy between her and Oppenheimer is palpable from their first meeting and there is definitely more chemistry than physics during their scenes together.

Any actor taking on a title role in a play shoulders the weight of the production and Beswick as Oppenheimer acquits himself excellently in the task. Coping with the large, complex part with seemingly relaxed ease, he manages to convincingly portray Oppenheimer as creating a device that will inflict death upon thousands of innocent people yet believing sincerely he was acting for the greater good of mankind in shortening the war. Only in the final scene does he realise he has left ‘a loaded gun in the playground’ and changed the nature of war forever. His amiable persona is juxtaposed beautifully against his inability to demonstrate love to those closest to him, most heartbreakingly rendered in the scene with the rejection of his own child. His single minded determination to save lives resulted in countless deaths giving grandeur and pathos to both the character and the nuanced portrayal by Beswick.

The creative team excelled with an Arena square stage mostly bare, saving the marked chalkboard floor which also acted as a projection screen from above. The Lighting Design (Tracey Gibbs) was particularly effective during the conclusion whilst costume and set (Chloe Wyn) were convincing in their period detail. My only issues were the lack of creativity in scene changes which felt overlong and paused the action instead of flowing into a narrative whole, adding to a sense that the piece could have benefitted from judicious editing of the three-hour runtime.

Overall, an extremely strong production that clearly articulated the complex strands of the writing with superb performances in the lead and supporting roles. Oppenheimer is a subject worthy of such a rich portrait and this evening Manchester School of Theatre excelled in their execution.

Reviewer: Paul Wilcox

Reviewed: 25th November 2022

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★