Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Wyndham’s Theatre, London ****

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg, Anne-Marie Duff as Georgie and Kenneth Cranham as Alex finally in harmony...

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg, Anne-Marie Duff as Georgie and Kenneth Cranham as Alex finally in harmony…

I think I should start off by saying Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle that launches a brave new commercial venture in the West End by director Marianne Elliott and producer Chris Harper, had me hooked. Not from the very beginning, mind you. Simon Stephens’s female catalyst, Georgie Burns is just too kooky (a motor-mouth combination of a young Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton), too `unpredictable’ to be plausible.

But after an `uncertain’ start, his variation on a theme of unpredictability which becomes an unlikely love story carries unmistakeable charm in the hands of Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham, bathed as it is in glimmering shades and minimalist settings by Elliott, lighting designer Paule Constable and designer, Bunny Christie.

In other hands, the idea of hitching a love story between a 35/40 American single mum and 75 year old butcher, to German physicist, Heisenberg’s head-spinning theory of Uncertainty predicated on the notion that it’s impossible to know the momentum and position of a particle, would seem absurdly pretentious.

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg, Kenneth Cranham as septuagenarian, Alex, a butcher, and Anne-Marie Duff as Georgie, a young primary school teacher and single mother

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg, Kenneth Cranham as septuagenarian, Alex, a butcher, and Anne-Marie Duff as Georgie, a young primary school teacher and single mother

But it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it that counts! That Stephens does get away with it and delightfully so, filling 90 minutes with a delicate study in the attraction of opposites, in the twists and turns of falling in love, in ruminations on life’s brief passage and a final declaration of love that carries the cathartic pleasure of a symphonic crescendo, is nothing less than remarkable.

Heisenberg actually started out in New York, as a commission by the Manhattan Theatre Club before moving to Broadway. Yet transferred as it is to a West End theatre, Elliott’s production contrives to create an extraordinary intimacy by the movement of walls that even take on the semblance of vibrating, of the throbbing ecstasy awaiting Alex when finally he allows himself to be drawn into a sexual relationship with Georgie.

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg, Anne-Marie Duff as Georgie Burns and Kenneth Cranham as Alex Priest

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg, Anne-Marie Duff as Georgie Burns and Kenneth Cranham as Alex Priest

There is something ineffably touching about the smile that spreads across the face of Cranham, wide of girth, heavy of feature and movement befitting his 75 years, as he lies in bed, post-coitus. Stephens gives the character of Alex a wonderful sense of lugubrious old-world simplicity expressed in plain, unfussy understatement drawn from a past age.

There is nothing `modern’ about Alex. He once loved a woman, Joanne, but she went off with another. Since then, his life has become unexceptional and he a dull creature of habit.

And here’s where Stephens Heisenberg theory comes in. For if it is a plea for anything, it is to embrace the notion of `unpredictability’, to take a chance and even if you can’t be sure of the speed of things happening or where it may lead you, or how you may end up completely misunderstanding the other, it’s still worth the gamble.

It may be a slightly spurious hook.

Stephens is hugely prolific. In the past couple of years, his output has included the award-winning adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night (again directed by Marianne Elliott), the existentially testing Song from Far Away and another dystopian journey through modern Europe, Carmen Disruption, using the opera as a backdrop, as well as Nuclear War, Obsession (adapted from Visconti’s film, seen recently at the Barbican), Fatherland for Manchester’s Royal Exchange and a new adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull soon to land at the Lyric Hammersmith.

There are signs that he may be beginning perhaps to spread himself too thinly and repeat himself. Alex produces a memorable thought to Georgie towards the end about music. He may not be a `modern’ man but his musical tastes, like Stephens’ own, are unexpectedly eclectic, from Gene Vincent and early rock n’ roll to today’s house and garage. As he notes to Georgie, `what makes music is the silence between the notes’.

It’s the self same phrase as appears both in Carmen Disruption and as alluded to in a sense in Song From Far Away when his solo protagonist, Willem, says: We exist in the gaps between the sounds that we make.’  

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg, Anne-Marie Duff as Georgie, crushed by life...

© Brinkhoff/Mögenburg, Anne-Marie Duff as Georgie, crushed by life…

What Alex indeed brings to Georgie is that sense of silence and therein, comfort.

But what makes Heisenberg work the way it does is entirely the chemistry between Anne-Marie Duff who has to make all the running in terms of electric charge, seducing Alex into engaging with her. And finally falling in love with her – although it’s not what she intended either. She had other plans for him.

Yet despite a slight sense of Stephens’ re-cycling certain philosophical and dramatic tropes and the fact that he’s chosen, all too stereotypically, the female of the species for his `uncertain, unpredictable’ particle, I just loved what Duff, Cranham and Elliott’s team together produced.

A slow-burn of a play, beautifully modulated to match the wiry excitability of Duff to the measured dullness then quickening of Cranham’s old buffer, 90 minutes in their company is time certainly well spent.

Gorgeous and heart-warming, like Alex, I left with the biggest smile on my face.


Georgie Burns: Anne-Marie Duff
Alex Priest: Kenneth Cranham


Catherine Rowney (Georgie)
Victor Ptak (Alex)

Director: Marianne Elliott
Designer: Bunny Christie
Lighting Designer: Paule Constable
Sound Designer: Ian Dickinson for Autograph Sound Ltd
Movement Director: Steven Hoggett
Music: Nils Frahm courtesy of Erased Tapes
Casting Director: Sarah Bird, CDG
Associate Director: Elle While
Design Associate: Tim McQuillen-Wright
Associate Movement Director: Neil Bettles
Dialect Coach: Penny Dyer

Presented by Elliott & Harper Productions, Catherine Schreiber, Grove Entertainment, Jujamcyn Theaters, LD Entertainment, David Mirvish, Aged in Wood Productions/Ricardo Hornos, Bob Boyett/Tom Miller, Bruno Wang Productions/Salman Al-Rashid, Across the Pond Theatricals/Trio Theatricals, Rami Sabi/Christopher Ketner 

World premiere of Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, commissioned and presented by Manhattan Theatre Club, New Yor, May 19, 2015

First perf of this production at Wyndhams Theatre, London, Oct 3, 2017. Runs to Jan 6, 2018

Review published on this site Oct 11, 2017