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Farm Hall at Jermyn Street Theatre

Farm Hall is the debut play by historian Katherine Moar.

David Yelland, Forbes Masson in Farm Hall. Jermyn Street Theatre. Photography by Alex Brenner.
David Yelland, Forbes Masson in Farm Hall. Jermyn Street Theatre. Photography by Alex Brenner.

Set in the summer of 1945 after the defeat of Germany but whilst the war in the Pacific rages on, six German nuclear scientists find themselves detained in a stately home near Cambridge: Farm Hall. Removed from the chaos of war and convinced of their scientific superiority they while the hours away playing chess, restoring a broken piano and acting out Coward’s Blithe Spirit.

Little do they know that almost every inch of Farm Hall is ‘bugged’ and all seven months of their confinement are recorded: to be translated, transcribed and published many years later. Moar’s play is a snapshot of their time at Farm Hall based on these conversations.

David Yelland is a very believable Von Laue who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1914 and was an open objector to Nazism.

Julius D’Silva plays Diebner as rather unpleasant and self-opinionated: he had at one time been the head of Hitler’s ‘Uranium Club’ but was replaced by Heisenberg (Alan Cox) when it became obvious that he was not going to able to produce a nuclear bomb. Cox makes Heisenberg the least likeable of the six, but still all too real.

His close friend, Weizsaecker, in his early thirties, appears to be the most forward-looking. Daniel Boyd manages to get a rounded portrayal of him, making him the most sympathetic of the group. Bagge (Archie Backhouse) was Heisenberg’s former student who clearly has a ‘problem’ with Diebner, speaking to him as little as possible; the thought of having to play chess with him is anathema.

Hahn (Forbes Masson) discovered nuclear fission and won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944. Masson makes him totally committed to chemistry rather than the war, let alone Hitler, willing to work anywhere in the future except the Soviet Union.

All six actors work very well together to give the audience a realistic insight into their motivations, likes and dislikes. They obviously do not realise that everything they say and do is being recorded but they come across as people who have little personality – they never seem to bond as a group but conversely never really argue or strongly disagree which means that they are not very interesting! The only moment of real tension comes at the end of Act One (the 90-minute play is run without an interval) when they discover that the Americans have got there before them!

The play has been imaginatively directed by Stephen Unwin, finding as much in the script as is possible, and the set, showing a “warmly, if shabbily, decorated interior of Farm Hall” is by Ceci Calf, with lighting by Ben Ormerod, greatly enhancing the mood and always ensuring that actors’ expressions are visible.

In the postscript to his play Copenhagen, Michael Frayn wrote that “The story of Farm Hall is another complete play in itself”.

4 stars

Review by John Groves

It is certainly fascinating to look back at the side-effects of war nearly eighty years ago.
Summer 1945. Hitler is dead, but the Pacific war rages on. Meanwhile, six of Germany’s top nuclear scientists are detained at a stately home in the Cambridge countryside, with only redacted newspapers, a broken piano and a copy of Blithe Spirit to pass the time. But when news arrives from across the globe that rocks Farm Hall to its core, the residents have no idea that their every word is overheard.

Archie Backhouse – BAGGE
Daniel Boyd – WEISACKER
Julius D’Silva – DIEBNER
Forbes Masson – HAHN
David Yelland – VON LAUE

Katherine Moar – WRITER
Stephen Unwin – DIRECTOR
Ceci Calf – DESIGNER
Daisy Francis-Bryden – STAGE MANAGER

Farm Hall
9th March – 8th April 2023

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  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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