“Stephen Unwin’s direction presents a deeply authentic sense of period, supported by Ceci Calf’s gently peeling wallpapered set and forties costumes”
Katherine Moar’s Farm Hall is a history play about six German physicists detained in a Cambridge great house in 1945. Directed by Stephen Unwin, and performed by the kind of acting talent theatregoers have come to expect at the Jermyn Street Theatre, audience members may be forgiven for thinking that they are about to watch the sequel to Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. It is true that both plays are concerned with the practical, and moral consequences, of making an atomic bomb. Yet Copenhagen and Farm Hall are entirely different plays, even though both feature Werner Heisenberg as a central character.
In Farm Hall, Moar uses her historical training to present a play based on indisputable facts. The six physicists (three of them Nobel prize winners) were detained by victorious Allied Forces at the end of World War Two. The house they occupy is extensively bugged, and their conversations transcribed—rich material for historians. Nevertheless, these conversations by themselves do not make compelling theatre, even when the subject matter revolves around whether a world could live or die. In Farm Hall, we are presented with a series of domestic situations in which five theoretical physicists (and one experimental physicist) play at amateur dramatics, fix a broken piano, and play chess, among other mundane matters. Their discussions range, as you might expect, from missing their families and their homeland, to dodging around the subject of whether they were members of, and believers in, the Nazi Party.
Throughout the first act in Farm Hall, we focus on the history. But the urgency that makes a drama compelling, the pressing need for action, is largely absent until the beginning of Act Two. At this point, the drama comes together because the unthinkable has happened. The Americans have built and detonated an atomic bomb over Japan. The abstract concerns of theoretical physics are suddenly replaced by pressing issues of moral philosophy—and geopolitics. The world is now a few seconds to midnight away from nuclear annihilation. The difference between Frayn’s play and Moar’s is that Frayn gets to the heart of the matter right from the start. He sees that a representation of the physicists’ concerns works better in an abstract place, rather than a real one. His title Copenhagen is ironic, Moar’s Farm Hall is not.
Despite the lack of dramatic tension for much of Farm Hall, however, there is plenty to admire in this production at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Stephen Unwin’s direction presents a deeply authentic sense of period, supported by Ceci Calf’s gently peeling wallpapered set and forties costumes. The actors do not have German accents, but Unwin is wise to steer his actors away from anything that might distract from the weighty subjects under discussion. The performances are terrific in this well rounded ensemble. Alan Cox as Heisenberg in Farm Hall has the difficult job of differentiating his character from the Heisenberg in Copenhagen. In Farm Hall, Cox plays the role as just one of a group of men thrown together in difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, Cox’s Heisenberg is suitably complex, conflicted, and holds the drama together, as expected. Julius D’Silva’s deftly managed Diebner is the foil in the group. He is the experimental physicist (and therefore looked down on by the theorists.) Diebner is also an acknowledged member of the Nazi Party, full of angry justification. Forbes Masson’s Hahn carries the guilt for all of them, and is both sad and joyful at the news he has been awarded a Nobel Prize. David Yelland’s Von Laue, Archie Backhouse’s Bagge, and Daniel Boyd’s Weizsäcker round out a group widely separated in age and politics. They give convincing performances as men caught up in events that had little to do with their work as physicists, and yet everything to do with the future of the world. These characters in Farm Hall makes us think the unthinkable: if we had the knowledge of how to destroy the planet, how would we use it?
Farm Hall is the stuff of nightmares, set in relative comfort in a Cambridgeshire stately home. It is this paradoxical presentation, and the strong sense of period, that will make the story attractive to fans of history plays.
“It’s a bold and brassy play that challenges convention, an idea eagerly and rather lovingly picked up by this slick and charming production”
Hear that a play is a Comedy of Manners and you will probably think of the waspish satires of the Reformation, or Oscar Wilde or Noël Coward classics, ripe with artificial plots and witty social commentary.
It is less likely that your mind will race to a work with a distinctly contemporary twist by one of the greatest crime writers of the Golden Age which features a character who may well be based on the writer herself.
The intriguing “Love All” by Dorothy L. Sayers was not a commercial success when it first opened in 1940 with its theme of choosing career or family and the sacrifices women are expected to make and has barely been seen on stage in 80 years.
It’s not hard to see why Jermyn Street Theatre thought it worth reviving the piece with its strong female characters and its tendency to be dismissive of romance in its current Temptation Season. What begins as a familiar and droll drawing room comedy, blossoms into a fun and feisty (one might even say feminist had Sayers herself not so disliked the term) period comedy that never once seems stale or dated.
It’s a bold and brassy play that challenges convention, an idea eagerly and rather lovingly picked up by this slick and charming production. In it a young actress besotted with a romance novelist runs off to Venice with him as he tries to pen his next bestseller about a repentant husband; but his wife, now a successful London playwright, refuses to divorce him. When the young actress hears of an exciting new playwright storming the stage back home, she knows she just has to be in her next hit – even though unaware of her true identity.
Unlike Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey whodunit “Gaudy Night,” in which women are merely tolerated by their male university peers, “Love All” confidently thrusts every one of its female characters into a position of commanding strength and it’s the male characters who come off the worst. The mistress notes that, “Every great man has had a woman behind him,” but the wife responds, “Every great woman has had some man or other in front of her, tripping her up.”
Emily Barber quickly lifts mistress Lydia to a level well beyond the dreamy inamorata unable to cope with her lover’s indecision. If the script itself ever allowed the character to be dreary Barber rapidly brushes it aside in a performance which relishes the fiery role of a good actress unwilling to accept the status quo.
Leah Whitaker, no stranger to the venue, is stupendous in turn as Janet (the nom de plume of Edith), the bored wife unwilling to be stifled by custom or etiquette, least of all by a patronising and colourless man. It’s a character very like Sayers’ fictional detective Harriet Vane, who in turn bore similarities to the author herself, and Whitaker ensures she is likeable and assertive without becoming bossily domineering.
The pair play off each other brilliantly as they grow to understand each other and realise their own happiness is far more important than life with languid chauvinist Godfrey (an assured performance from Alan Cox as the narrow-minded, callous dinosaur who fails to recognise the abilities and humanity of those around him) as they prowl around like lionesses stalking their unfortunate prey.
Karen Ascoe is wonderful in two roles: Judith, the friend in Venice, with the most dazzling array of facial expressions and pauses which speak volumes, and then Stella, the no-nonsense secretary in London.
Bethan Cullinane’s Mary is a careful study of loyalty and devotion, steering through layers of awkwardness and it’s a relief the play avoids what appears to be a predictable ending for a character who has her own strength.
Daniel Burke as actor Michael and Jim Findley as Henry fall into the category here of men who fare badly at the hands of a writer wanting to explore the liberation of women in professional and domestic life, but they do well to ensure their parts are three-dimensional and enjoyable.
The set is an extraordinary work of art by Louie Whitemore, transforming almost miraculously between Acts One and Two in such a small space from a Venetian apartment complete with giant Canaletto on the wall to a London drawing room used by Janet as her office – as a voiceover tells us during the interval, switching from the Grand Canal of Venice to the Grand Junction Canal in London.
For Sayers’ fans there’s even a play poster on the wall for Janet’s hit “Mare’s Nest” with the actors’ names all being characters from her novels or real life relationships. Not that there are many quiet moments to play that Who’s Who? Game but it’s a clever design nod.
“Love All” represents a sad but triumphant farewell to director Tom Littler who, as Artistic Director of Jermyn Street Theatre, has turned this hidden gem in Piccadilly into something sparkling, a powerhouse venue to be taken seriously. For his final (18th) production here he has created something to remember and savour before heading off to the Orange Tree in Richmond in October.
Defying all expectations of clichéd creakiness, Jermyn Street Theatre delivers a sparky revival of this surprisingly overlooked play in a manner as uncompromising as its writer, adding a welcome touch of Piccadilly panache.