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“Chemistry — to be pronounced with a sizzling 's' — is the science that first comes to mind as you watch the splendid Broadway debut of Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg," wrote Ben Brantley of the New York Times, as Heisenberg officially opened on Broadway.
Now, Simon Stephens (perhaps best known for his Olivier and Tony Award-winning stage adaptations of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) will bring his compelling two-hander – with all its sizzling chemistry in tow - over the pond to play the Wyndham’s Theatre from 3 October 2017 to to 6 January 2018, starring Olivier Award winner Kenneth Cranham and two-time Olivier nominee Anne-Marie Duff. At the helm of this West End production will be Stephens’ long-time collaborator Marianne Elliott, who has previously directed his plays ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' and 'Harper Regan' at the National Theatre and 'Port' at the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
Not only does this mark yet another collaboration for Stephens and Elliott, but it also marks the inaugural West End show for Elliott & Harper Productions – a newly formed theatre company headed by Elliott and theatre producer Chris Harper.
During its Broadway engagement, which starred Tony, Emmy & two-time Golden Globe winner Mary-Louise Parker and Tony nominee Denis Arndt, I had the opportunity to interview playwright Simon Stephens about this more intimate, but equally compelling production. Although named after a theoretical physicist, Stephens describes Heisenberg as “a love story between two extraordinary characters. A forty five yearly woman and a seventy five year old man. Predicted on an interrogation of the Uncertainty Principle.”
Indeed, Stephens does seem to be attracted to write extraordinary characters, who are multifaceted, complex and who defy social norms. The lead character of Christopher Boone in ‘Curious’ and especially the character of Georgie in Heisenberg vividly share these attributes through their interactions with other human beings. Stephens adds: “I think it’s in characters in extremis, the curious, the extraordinary, the marginalized, the outliers that humanity best reveals itself. They’re great fun to write. They’re intoxicating to watch.”
Georgie and Alex are made even more intriguing to the audience member because of their thirty-year age gap. All too often in Hollywood films, a much older actor is paired with an actress young enough to be his daughter to play the role of the love interest. However, Stephens interestingly defends his choice of characters by stating that he enjoys “the interrogation of the unlikeliness of love in all its facets.” He adds: “I think the Hollywood archetype tends to pretend that there is no age difference between the older man and the younger woman. The comedy and humanity of Heisenberg, if it exists, exists by drawing attention to the anomaly.”
Having seen the play on Broadway, it is this humanity and the connection of these two characters regardless of (or even because of) age difference that turned the Manhattan Theatre Club production into a bona fide hit. It also earned Denis Arndt a well-deserved Tony Award nomination last weekend for “Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Play” for his efforts.
Time will tell whether the West End production will mirror its previous Broadway incarnation in terms of the minimalistic production values, but Heisenberg is living proof that you don’t need an army of lavish sets, costumes and props to end up with a theatrical masterpiece. The recipe for success, in the case of its New York engagement, was to take a well-crafted script, add two gifted actors, mix well with two chairs, two tables and a pillow… and voila! I am thrilled that this script is now in the hands of such accomplished stage veterans as Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff.
The dialogue in Heisenberg struck me as wonderfully human and outlandishly extraordinary at the same time - no easy feat for a playwright to pull off. The coupling of an erratically outspoken figure in Georgie, with all her eccentricities, and an older and reassuring figure in Alex works from the moment we first meet them (and they each other). Stephens writes about human connection in a way that instantly hooks us and our curiosity is sparked by this unlikely pairing from the get-go. The obvious age difference provides a factor of intrigue at the beginning, but - even more interestingly - becomes irrelevant by the end of the piece. We have gotten to know Alex and Georgie intimately over the course of 85 minutes to the point where all superficial standards are out of the window. What may seem to be a highly unlikely narrative on paper becomes utterly plausible through Stephens’ skill as a playwright.
The play originally premiered off-Broadway in 2015 at the intimate setting of New York City Center’s Stage II. Fortunately the Broadway transfer maintained that feeling of intimacy, reducing the acting space on the stage by having audience members sat on raised seating behind the actors. Let’s hope the design of the London production will be equally as intimate.
If you are the sort of theatregoer that yearns to see real human connection that grips you tightly and has you firmly rooting for its players, then Heisenberg might well be just your cup of tea.
Heisenberg tickets are now on sale.