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Farm Hall

Farm Hall


Jermyn Street Theatre

FARM HALL at Jermyn Street Theatre


Farm Hall

“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.



Reviewed on 14th March 2023

by Dominica Plummer

Photography by Alex Brenner



Previously reviewed at this venue:


This Beautiful Future | ★★★ | August 2021
Footfalls and Rockaby | ★★★★★ | November 2021
The Tempest | ★★★ | November 2021
Orlando | ★★★★ | May 2022
Cancelling Socrates | ★★★★ | June 2022
Love All | ★★★★ | September 2022


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The Outsider (L’Étranger) – 5 Stars


The Outsider (L’Étranger)

Print Room at the Coronet

Reviewed – 18th September 2018


“A trust in Camus runs through the piece, but Okri is also unafraid to interrogate him”


We are going to die, all of us, no matter who we are, no matter what we try. This is true. In the knowledge that our fates our sealed, and given the constant humiliation of living, the only question is why carry on at all, let alone struggle? This is the central problem of absurdism, the strain of existentialism developed by Albert Camus; the conclusion of Meursault – the disconnected protagonist of his most celebrated novel – is that there is no reason. And yet he carries on existing. Roaring with the urgency of the original, Ben Okri’s adaptation of L’Étranger for stage demands that once more we face its shattering questions.

His mother dies, but Meursault cannot recall when, let alone how old she was. He is uninterested in seeing her body, smokes and drinks coffee in the presence of her coffin, and falls asleep at her funeral. For him these facts are as irrelevant as whether or not he even loved her (though, he supposes, he probably did). There is no spite in his heart, only indifference, and incomprehension at the values of others. Though he is casually happy in the arms of his girlfriend (who, he supposes, he doesn’t really love), or watching films, or swimming in the warm seas off the Algerian coast, his inability to engage in society’s fictions condemns him. It condemns him when he doesn’t cry at his mother’s funeral, when he shows no concern at his neighbour beating a woman, when he displays no interest in career or marriage, and ultimately when he kills a man.

To translate such an austere, interior novel to theatre requires a unique intuition into its ideas, and Okri displays nothing less. As a starting point, he samples directly from the original text, allowing Meursault’s monologues to cut right through each scene. Not only do Camus’ words serve as an anchor to the piece, but the manner in which they are used immediately isolates Meursault. The world is made to appear as trivial to us as it does to him, often to the point of hilarity. Okri generates a dream-like environment, beyond which we too would only see him as the outsider.

A trust in Camus runs through the piece, but Okri is also unafraid to interrogate him. On the subject of the murdered man, a nameless Arab (referred to exclusively as “the Arab” in the novel), Okri seems uneasy with Meursault’s -and possibly Camus’- disposal of him as a tool to reaffirm the former’s humanity. In a political climate replete with anti-Islamic sentiment (and given Algeria’s own fractious past), Okri has explicitly expressed the desire to give the murdered man agency. Rather than significantly alter the narrative, however, the man returns as a ghost at Meursault’s trial. In this way Okri extends to him Camus’ universal philosophy rather than – as Meursault later says about himself – excluding him from the proceedings. It is not a rebuttal of Camus but a dialogue, and one that serves to strengthen the piece’s resolve rather than diminish it.

Led by Sam Frenchum’s Meursault, in two hours not a single beat is missed by the cast. Every actor’s performance is a keystone in Camus and Okri’s towering theses. In such an essentially collaborative effort, singling out performances may be a hollow gesture. Nonetheless, it is the furious dialogues of David Carlyle, Tessa Bell-Briggs, and John Barrow in the second act’s courtroom scene that distils the strange logic surrounding Meursault (in spite of his guilt) into a final, terrifying conclusion. Meanwhile Frenchum manages, impressively, to capture both Meursault’s detachment and the strange empathy he evokes; the enormity and the comedy of absurdism both haunt his withdrawn expression. The pace of each scene is erratic -some quick and matter of fact, others lingering past the point of meaning – but Meursault’s calm is constant. The spacious, sparse set, often only lit by a single beam of light seems to reflect his mood and though the piece is full of action, his stillness overwhelms.

As brutal as the core notion of absurdism appears, and as nihilistic – perhaps even as immoral – as Meursault may seem to be, Camus’ final argument is one of breathtaking optimism. The very idea skewers the trivialities of modern existence, summed up by Meursault’s refusal to engage meaningfully with them. This does not mean that the trivialities have no consequences, but only from a position beyond them can a person ask the question, is life worth living? In both L’Étranger and his classic essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus concludes that, although our fate may be determined, perhaps even because of it, we are uniquely free to build our own meaning of life. Perhaps then, for the first time, we can really live.

Okri’s adaptation is both a questioning and an answering of this argument, and by returning to it now, he reaffirms my suspicion that in such obviously absurd times, the inherent absurdity of choosing to live becomes all the more important.

Reviewed by Harry True

Photography by Tristram Kenton


The Outsider (L’Étranger)

Print Room at the Coronet until 13th October


Based on the work of Albert Camus
Sisyphus Distressing | ★★★★ | Blue Elephant Theatre | March 2018


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