Any show with John Heffernan in the lead is worth seeing, but despite his excellent performances, this is a play that somehow never quite gets into top gear.
Perhaps the ugly surroundings of the Vaudeville Theatre aren't ideal for this transfer by the RSC of Tom Morton-Smith's successful debut in Stratford. But though the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the invention of the atomic bomb is a fascinating one, it never quite had me on the edge of my seat.
The story is told over a period of less than a decade, starting with Oppenheimer flirting with the Communist Party of the United States in the 1930s as a professor of physics at Berkeley, and climaxing with the explosion of two nuclear bombs over Japan in 1945. It is competently told, searching for the drama in Oppenheimer's relations with his work colleagues, his army bosses and his women rather than in the high science of physics.
But the play is too long at three hours, there are far too many characters and too many short scenes; it strikes me as over-researched and under-imagined. Director Angus Jackson and RSC Dramaturg Pippa Hill should have pressed the writer for more changes to simplify and deepen the play. Oppenheimer's relations with his wife and other women help round out his enigmatic character, but they don't influence the main story. In the plethora of scenes and characters, the key choices Oppenheimer makes and their effect on his state of mind fall out of focus. And there's little in the way of subtext or dramatic irony for the audience to enjoy; apart from general historical hindsight, there is nothing the audience gets to know that the characters on stage don't. There are unnecessary musical interludes and short cameos for a ranting Nazi and for Albert Einstein, and towards the end of the play Oppenheimer himself vanishes, eclipsed by the story of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he had little to do with.
The play needs a wider historical perspective, less realism and more invention to become a great drama, despite the best efforts of Heffernan and his fellow actors. Often I feel that historical dramas on stage and screen are under-researched and too quickly substitute fiction for fact -- The Imitation Game being a good example. So I may be contradicting myself here; but I think this play needs to cast off the factual baggage and reimagine Oppenheimer as a tragic figure on an operatic scale.