In a programme note for Simon Stephens’ play Heisenberg, a clinical scientist (so described) is asked by the play’s director, Marianne Elliott, to define, in simple terms, Werner Heisenberg’s 1927 Uncertainty Principle. “If we measure the position of a particle with ever greater precision,” says the expert, “then at some point we have to accept a correspondingly increasing impression in the measuring of the particle’s momentum.”
Okay. So, cutting to the chase, what this basically means is that chance, uncertainty and unpredictability are all built into the DNA of our universe. And really, that’s all you need to know to get the gist of this slender but entertaining two-hander, which premiered in New York in 2015. Or, as one of the characters says about a Bach sonata, “Try to predict what will happen next. It will take you completely by surprise.” Well yes, to a degree.
The music-loving character in question is Alex Priest (Kenneth Cranham), a rather reticent 75-year-old butcher wearing resignation and disappointment as his twin badges. He owns a shop in London that has seen better days, while at home his life is lonely and, well, boringly predictable.
Then one day – unpredictably – while quietly sitting on a bench in a London’s St. Pancras station minding is own business, he is given an impulsive kiss on the neck by 42-year-old Georgie Burns (Anne-Marie Duff), an extroverted, contradictory, effusive American originally from New Jersey but now working in London as a school receptionist.
Both have suffered major losses in their lives. Eighteen months ago Georgie’s lover died of a heart attack, while her 19-year-old son upped and went to America without leaving a forwarding address. Alex, we learn, lost his mother when he was 17, his older sister while still a child, and, saddest of all, his wife in middle age. With loss as their common denominator, they begin a seemingly mismatched relationship awash with ups and downs before, finally, six weeks later, deciding to commit.
Despite the highfalutin Heisenberg link – which, we’re told, is the play’s inspiration – we’re in typical rom-com territory involving such familiar items as sex, money, compatibility, reliance, doubt, trust and, on this occasion, a cavernous age gap.
The prolific Stephens, whose most acclaimed play to date is his award-winning adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adds a dash of pretentiousness and wish-fulfilment to a cocktail some audiences may want to leaven with a healthy pinch of salt. Shaking it all up for our delectation is director Elliott, whose sensitive understanding of Simon’s work has previously (and dazzlingly) revealed itself in The Curious Incident and his early play Port. It’s a meticulous job.
Though it took me a while to accept that there was real chemistry between Alex and Georgie (or maybe I should say Cranham and Duff), I reluctantly grew to embrace their relationship and mutual dependence. As this 80-minute play unfurls, both protagonists subtly reveal some unpredictable facets of their characters’ personalities, particularly Cranham, whose gradual transformation from a fixed-in-his ways septuagenarian to the more flexible, even fun-loving man he must have been when he was younger, finally won me over.
The unequivocal triumph of the evening, though, is Bunny Christie’s brilliantly flexible design. Using a series of movable walls that open and shut both horizontally and diagonally (at one point Georgie is symbolically trapped between two of them when they claustrophobically close in on her) and employing some basic pieces of furniture that neatly appear (and disappear) from under the flooring, Alex and Georgie’s world is also hauntingly conveyed in a few bold strokes enhanced by the intense blues, reds and greens and in Paule Constable’s vivid lighting and Ian Dickinson’s sparingly used but atmospheric sound effects.
Heisenberg may not be the most challenging or even most intoxicating brew on the London stage right now, but it’s a welcome, often engaging addition to the West End.