Farm Hall

Katherine Moar
Jermyn Street Theatre
Jermyn Street Theatre

Julius D'Silva as Diebner, Archie Backhouse as Bagge, Forbes Masson as Hahn, Alan Cox as Heisenberg, Daniel Boyd as Weizsäker and David-Yelland as Von Laue Credit: Alex Brenner
Archie Backhouse as Bagge, Forbes Masson as Hahn and Alan Cox as Heisenberg Credit: Alex Brenner
David Yelland as Von Laue and Forbes Masson as Hahn Credit: Alex Brenner
Julius D'Silva as Diebner and Alan Cox as Heisenberg Credit: Alex Brenner

In 1945, as the European war ended, the Allies detained Germany’s top nuclear scientists and secluded them in a house in the Cambridgeshire countryside where every room was bugged as a way of discovering how far the Nazis had got in their discoveries and the creation of an atomic bomb. Declassified transcripts of their conversations, which were made public in 1992, were a key inspiration for Katherine Moar’s debut play.

In real life, there were ten scientists as 'guests' at Farm Hall, reduced here to six, three of them winners of Nobel Prizes. Kurt Diebner (Julius D’Silva) is an experimental physicist among theoreticians who led Hitler’s 'Uranium Club' until his failure to develop an atom bomb saw him replaced by Werner Heisenberg (Alan Cox), who is there with his colleague Carl Friedrich von Weizsäker (Daniel Boyd) and his former student Eric Bagge (Archie Backhouse). They were all Nazi Party members or apparent supporters, but also there are anti-Nazi physicist Max von Laue (David Yelland) and chemist Otto Hahn (Forbes Masson), whose 1938 discovery of nuclear fission led to research to exploit its power.

These are men stuck with each other, Bagge for instance can’t stand Diebner, and all are worried about the Allies’ intentions concerning them. They are bored and, after a very brief telephone prologue in which Von Laue tells his wife that he has to leave and doesn’t know where he is going, we see them trying to counter boredom there with an incongruous play reading of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, the first of 14 short scenes which are each carefully tailored to explore their concerns and their past actions.

As well as the friction between them, we get their explanations (excuses?) for joining or supporting the Party, the effort of writing letters that keep within their captors’ censorship code, at one point sketching formulae and diagrams of ideas on a small blackboard. Will they reveal something of use to the Allies?

Much of the interest lies in the interaction of these men, but the drama is heightened when they learn of American success in building an atom bomb and dropping it on Hiroshima. Hahn is horrified that this is what his discovery has led too, others are horrified that the Americans got there when they didn’t. As they question what to blame for their failure, there is a hint that Heisenberg (whom theatregoers may previously have encounter in Michael Fray’s Copenhagen) may have played a key role, perhaps intentionally.

There are impeccable performances from this fine cast, while Stephen Unwin’s direction makes what could just be a talking shop totally involving and fully comprehensible, its seriousness paired with humour. Ceci Calf’s setting puts naturalistic and comfortable furnishing in a room with wallpaper stripped back to reveal many different patterned layers. It is not just a metaphor for uncovering secrets but a reminder of many layered history. Ben Ormerod’s lighting discreetly adds drama, and with John Leonard’s sound design, transitions between scenes become part of the action.

I don’t how much historian Katherine Moar’s dialogue owes to the transcripts, but this feels like the real thing. With its mix of moral dilemmas and possible revelations, I found it gripping.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

*Some links, including Amazon, Stageplays.com, Bookshop.org, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?