Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 23 May, 2006

Bugs Bunny used to grumble that he knew he should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque. Richard Feynman does so in Crispin Whittell’s new play, and look where it gets him: stuck in a small-town New Mexico hotel in 1945, bedevilled by a teenage girl in his bed, her sailor-boy beau and a bullish private investigator convinced that Feynman is actually Klaus Fuchs and has just stolen the atomic secrets of Los Alamos.

As well as referring to Feynman (who was probably the great popular physicist between Einstein and Hawking), “clever” is the perfect word for Whittell’s piece. That Loony Tunes homage is surely deliberate, as is an oblique nod later on to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s Bedazzled. Every single detail introduced in the first act is given a resolution, usually comic, in the second... and when I say that those details range from a pair of size 11 shoes to an exploding toad by way of a trampoline and a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, you may begin to grasp how delightfully intricate a mechanism this script is. Some factors pay off in history rather than in the drama: the matelot with the Elizabeth Taylor fixation turns out to be Conrad Hilton Jr, who would later become Taylor’s first husband; he and the gumshoe are referred to in the cast list not by their names but as “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”, an allusion to the A-bombs dropped on Japan a few weeks after the imagined events portrayed here.

In Whittell’s own production, Adrian Rawlins conveys something of the real Feynman’s animated mission to explain the most recondite secrets of the universe, and Corey Johnson has great fun as the non-clever dick, the P.I. who constructs espionage theories more complex than General Relativity and utterly wrong to boot. However, the play can never quite emerge from the shadow of its obvious theatrical forebear, Terry Johnson’s Insignificance, in which Einstein meets Marilyn Monroe. Nor does it take full farcical wing quickly enough: one finds oneself sticking with that first act of set-up in a spirit of determination to see the payoffs, rather than in seduction or exhilaration. My companion summed up the evening’s nearly-ness succinctly: “I felt as if it should be good rather than that it was.”

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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