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Has the Donmar redeemed itself with The Physicists?

John-Heffernan-as-M-bius--008Josie Rourke's tenure as artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse has got off to a wobbly start. First there was The Recruiting Officer which had some splendid moments but as a whole piece didn't quite live up to expectations and hype. Then there was Making Snores Quietly. Enough said.

So her third offering, a new version of Friedrich Durrenmatt's The Physicists by Jack Thorne, didn't so much have big shoes to fill as a reputation to restore. And I think it did.

It's a curious play. The first half is full of surreal and black comedy, set in a sanatorium where three patients remain in the old building, having not yet been transferred to new facilities. Of these three one thinks he is Einstein (Paul Bhattacharjee), one thinks he's Sir Isaac Newton (Justin Salinger) and the third is a physicist (John Heffernan) who believes King Soloman talks to him. 

Einstein has just strangled a nurse, Newton having committed a similar crime a week or so earlier but Dr Mathilde Von Zahnd (a hunchbacked Sophie Thompson) seems more bothered about how distressed the perpetrator is by his crime rather than the offense itself.

The second half is equally surreal but has a different tone, it is much darker as tables are well and truly turned.

Written in 1961 at the height of the cold war the play, for all its oddities, essentially muses on the idea of knowledge as power, the responsibility of that power and whether it corrupts. Who do you trust when you don't know who is watching who? It's humour is as dark as its sentiment is sombre.

With such a great acting ensemble you'd expect great performances and they were. John Heffernan is generally fab in everything he does and this is no exception. Justin Salinger, whom I last saw in the superb Our Class and Through A Glass Darkly, is going to become a bit of a favourite, I can feel it, and Paul Batacharjee has happily wiped Faith, Hope and Charity from my memory.

Sophie Thompson is always a joy to watch but I'm starting to think that she's getting typecast as the eccentric, bossy older lady and would love to see her play something really different. Dyeing her hair blond for the role isn't quite enough.

Miranda Raison has two criminally small parts which was a shame but she looked like she was having fun and I had fun too.  The Physicists is getting a good solid four stars from me.

Production photo: Johan Persson


Chocker full of second degree connections this one (at least six) but this is my favourite because it's a teeny bit cheeky: Oliver Coopersmith who plays both Blocher and Wilfried-Kaspar has also appeared in Grandma's House. And if you don't get the connection then never mind. @polyg approves and as she is this game's harshest critic and self-proclaimed rule-maker, that counts for a lot.