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Clever Dick

Crispin Whittell
Hampstead Theatre
(2006)

Prodcution photo

Clever Dick is an unholy mix of high school physics lesson and politically incorrect farce. Like writer/director Crispin Whittell's last play at Hampstead, Darwin in Malibu, it brings real life characters into unlikely fictional situations.

In this case, with a high-powered atomic physicist, Richard Feynman meeting a young woman in a state of undress, soon to be followed by the arrival of Nicky Hilton, now better identified as Paris's great uncle rather than Elizabeth Taylor's first husband or Zsa Zsa Gabor's stepson, the greatest similarity is to Terry Johnson's far better crafted Insignificance.

With characters identified in the programme by the names of atomic bombs, subtlety was always likely to be in short supply and Whittell confirms this impression with his request to his actors to play it jerkily, Marx Brothers style, to get laughs.

The plot, set in June 1945, sees Feynman, played with great energy by Adrian Rawlins, leaving Los Alamos after 58 hours without sleep and getting lost because he cannot tell his right hand from his left. He ends up in a hewn Aztec tomb of a hotel room nicely designed by Michael Taylor and is seen gearing up for suicide.

After a change of heart, he goes to bed and is soon joined there by the scantily-clad but delightful Matilda, given tremendous life by the highly promising Jennifer Higham.

Following initial misunderstandings, the young New Mexican girl who is celebrating her 18th birthday demonstrates the kind of knowledge that most people would require a master's degree to accumulate. She even gives as good as she gets in her debates with the putative Nobel prize-winning scientist, who also turns out to be a talented amateur cracksman.

Their scenes in particular allow Whittell the writer to disseminate a considerable volume of information much of it irrelevant to the plot but nevertheless interesting to those with a scientific bent. On occasion, such is the loquacity of almost all of the characters that you fear that there has been a nuclear fallout-induced epidemic of verbal diarrhoea in the desert.

This is interleaved with pure, bad taste farce as a big G-Man (Corey Johnson) constantly bursts in, once through the flimsy roof, on the trail of German nuclear spy, Klaus Fuchs. His main purpose appears to be firing off clichés and cracking painful jokes rather than advancing the plot.

Just when things were getting complicated, who should roll up but Nicky Hilton, also known as Billy for reasons that are too complicated to mention or understand. He has a worrying obsession with the 13 year-old Elizabeth Taylor, freshly drooled over in Lassie and National Velvet, but more surprisingly, the woman that, like so many others, he will eventually marry.

For two hours, Whittell attempts to balance the physics lesson, the run-of-the-mill farce and a load of un-PC jokes that culminate in the arrival and solicitation of a trampolining nun.

Clever Dick is the kind of play that requires the co-operation of its audience in suspending disbelief and going along with its many unusual premises. On the opening night, perhaps half did so, while the remainder allowed their disbelief to reign. The latter group might have been unsurprised that the play was set in the little town of Socorro, since in Spanish this means "help".

Reviewer: Philip Fisher