Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle


Daily Mail
“A brilliant love story… unmissable”
“Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham are excellent in an immaculately designed production of Simon Stephens’ fable about love and physics”
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This production has an impressive pedigree. It is written by Simon Stephens and directed by Marianne Elliott, whose last collaboration was on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Acclaimed at its New York premiere in 2015, the play now stars Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham in the West End. While it is presented with great panache, Heisenberg is basically a slender, romantic fable that uses science to provide a bit of intellectual stiffening.

The title acknowledges the principle identified by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg in 1927: that it is impossible to measure the position and momentum of a particle simultaneously with absolute precision.

Stephens applies this idea of natural unpredictability to two completely disparate people. Georgie is a wild, faintly unstable 42-year-old woman from New Jersey who impulsively accosts Alex, a solitary 75-year-old butcher, as he sits on a bench at St Pancras Station. What starts with a kiss on the neck grows, over six scenes and 80 minutes, into a relationship that is, at different times, wary, affectionate, twitchy and tender. Alex’s initial suspicion thaws as he learns, under Georgie’s tuition, to reveal himself.

Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, in which Heisenberg was a character, famously applied the uncertainty principle to drama. Where Frayn showed how you can never know the whereabouts of a particle or anything else, Stephens uses scientific theory to lend plausibility to a somewhat improbable love story. Georgie is wayward and contradictory, so you can never be sure whether or not she is using Alex to bankroll a trip to New Jersey in search of her lost son. But you don’t need Heisenberg to justify humanity’s mixed motives, and there is a touch of male wish-fulfilment in the idea that lonely old codgers can prove sexually magnetic to younger women.

The play is at its best in its quieter moments, which vindicate Alex’s belief that music exists not in the notes but “in the space between the notes”. The emptiness of Alex’s fridge says a lot about his solitude, and the fragility of relationships between the old and the young is evoked by the thought that the couple might not get to share many Christmases.

The main delight, however, lies in the visual purity of Elliott’s production. Bunny Christie has created an immaculate design in which mobile, white walls permit the stage space to constantly expand or contract: at one point, Georgie is hemmed in by the moving blocks and then shunts them aside, which perfectly captures her sense of entrapment and escape. Paule Constable’s lighting also deploys a prismatic range of colour to illustrate the shifting nature of the story’s love affair.

In the same way, Duff’s performance gives us the full emotional spectrum. One moment she seems almost frenziedly animated and wild-eyed; the next she pulls her hair back, suddenly turning into a sad-eyed, strait-laced primary school receptionist. Duff captures Georgie’s shape-shifting resilience, while Cranham movingly shows a stolid, self-reliant and withdrawn man, inured to disappointment, gradually coming to life and revealing his long-suppressed friskiness.

Both actors are excellent and the play has many moments of quiet pleasure. Yet I can’t help feeling it is an escapist fantasy, and that there is more truth about this subject in a brisk farce like Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale, which hilariously shows the perils of love between the generations.

Michael Billington
Evening Standard
“Duff and Cranham light up stage with atomic attraction”
“Heartfelt and entertaining”
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Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that you can’t know both the precise location and the speed or direction of travel of a particle at any one time. As soon as you stop to take a measure of one, you lose a firm grip on the other.

Don’t panic, though. That’s the all theory out of the way. And, luckily, you won’t need to understand it, nor to dust off and brush up that old maths GCSE to enjoy this heartfelt new play from writer Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott. The creative duo behind the phenomenally successful stage adaptation of The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time.

The play follows the unlikely relationship of Alex and Georgie. He (Kenneth Cranham), 75 and never married, is self-contained, habitual and unassuming. Comfortable with his narrow place in life, if not without regrets. She (Anne-Marie Duff), thirty-odd years his junior, wears her exuberant but fragile emotions like a technicolor coat. Constantly in motion with a beguiling but erratic energy (and a joyously foul mouth) she crashes into his life in a chance encounter at a train station.

Watching these two supreme actors search their way around the hazy edges of their burgeoning relationship is never short of entertaining. Cranham imbues Alex with a sense of rigidness, in his formulaic way of life and his highly cultivated sense of self.

Duff’s Georgie, by comparison, is a constantly shifting proposition. You’re never sure where you are with her, whether she’s inventing stories or lurching between timid insecurity and unabashed forwardness.

There are some lovely moments as each draws the other into uncharted territory. Such as when Alex, after Georgie has torn herself up over her seemingly multiple personalities, assuages her in his belief that there are no such things as personalities. According to him, there are only the appearance of them in the accumulation of our actions, and our actions are free to change. In the process, he frees himself to become someone he didn’t expect.

Bunny Christie’s ‘box of light’ set works wonderfully well. Growing and shrinking around the characters as the boundaries of their lives contort in a constant state of flux.

At the heart of the play is the intriguing suggestion that people, like the core of nature in the theory of subatomic particles, are inherently fuzzy.

If you concentrate solely on who and where you are, you’ll lose sight of the direction you’re heading. Conversely, if you’re only ever looking ahead, the beauty of the finer details of life disappear in the blur of perpetual motion.

The theory might say you can’t know where you’re at or where you’re going at the same time, but you’ll know you enjoyed the journey.

Nick Wells
“The design, it should be scientifically observed, is little less than gorgeous”
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We need to talk about the title of Simon Stephens’s first venture into the West End since his award-laden adaptation of The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time.

“Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle” sounds like the sort of thing Melvyn Bragg would invite clever people into Radio 4 studios to talk about. It implies, surely that if you’re interested in the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg and his world-shattering observation about the way that the universe works – or, rather, the way we observe the universe at work – then you’ve come to the right play.

Those assuming, however, that they will emerge as well-briefed, and intellectually nourished, as they did, say, from Tom Morton-Smith’s recent bio-drama Oppenheimer – or, for that matter, Michael Frayn’s bedazzling Copenhagen, which brilliantly imagines the enigmatic wartime meetings between Heisenberg and fellow physicist Niels Bohr, need to be warned that this show operates according to what I call “Stephens’ Law”. 

Namely, the grander his title, the more tangential its relation to the content. Witness the recent Nuclear War at the Royal Court, which had as much to do with nuclear war as the Sun newspaper does with the giant ball of plasma at the centre of our solar system.

This isn’t to say that “Heisenberg” – which reunites Stephens with the creative team behind Curious Incident (and helps launch director Marianne Elliott’s new producing company) – is wholly without reference to the famous ‘uncertainty principle”. A few scenes into this 90-minute two-hander, Georgie – a loose-cannon fortysomething American in London who has casually befriended a septuagenarian butcher called Alex – explains how she failed to spot the direction her now-estranged son was going in.

“If you watch something closely enough you realise you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there,” she explains. “Did you know that? If you pay attention to where it’s going or how fast it’s moving you stop watching it properly.” Eh voila. “That’s the f***ing Uncertainty Principle”. At the end of Curious Incident, the teen hero gives a six-minute brainstorming answer to a complex maths question that makes you feel cleverer just listening to it; here, you’re left none the wiser and if you removed every vague allusion to quantum mechanics, the play would remain intact.

Which gifts us, effectively, with a slightly cutesy, slow-burn romance between two people existing in a state of emotional loss (and, yup, uncertainty) who – because life is for living – wind up in bed together, and later on Jersey City, contemplating a trip to Manhattan (eat your heart out, Woody Allen). The age difference is striking – but not creepily, off-puttingly so. (This easy-to-chew theatrical morsel is the palatable essence of pre-supper theatre). 

The slippery Georgie, nicely played by Anne-Marie Duff with a flirtatious brashness so determinedly “winning” it almost isn’t, laughs in the face of Kenneth Cranham’s Alex when she learns he’s 75. Being an old-fashioned gent, and having had no physical intercourse with women since the Fifties (plausibility alert), the oldster suffers her taunts with good grace. And if there’s something genuinely cherishable about the evening it’s the way Cranham beautifully charts his character’s shift from reticence to release, like a grumpy cat that warily rolls over to let its tummy be tickled by a stranger.

The design, it should be scientifically observed, is little less than gorgeous: Bunny Christie conjures walls that shift this way and that and sparse furniture that tilts magically into view; Paule Constable’s lighting creates achingly lovely surges of background colour. Yet the visual tricksiness speaks volumes about the puff-of-smoke nature of the thing. Would I pay £85 top price to watch it? Certainly not.

Dominic Cavendish
“The two actors have superb chemistry”
Financial Times
“A prime pedigree production”

Awards and nominations

  • Evening Standard Theatre Awards 2017
    Winner - Best Design


An unlikely, enthralling love story finds chemistry in quantum physics

When 42-year-old loud, aggressive American Georgie meets self-effacing, standoffish British butcher Alex, 75 amidst the bustle of a crowded London train station, their lives are changed forever. As she stalks and seduces the reticent Alex, Georgie’s motives are never predictable.

The couple – and the audience – can only adhere to the Heisenberg Principle itself which warns that not science cannot explain everything. As Georgie says: “If you watch something closely enough, you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there.”

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle reunites the Tony and Olivier Award-winning creative team of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time including director Marianne Elliott (War Horse, Angels in America) and playwright Simon Stephens (Fatherland, Pornography), plus Anne-Marie Duff (Nowhere Boy, Suffragette) as Georgie and Kenneth Cranham (The Father, An Inspector Calls) as Alex.