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Farm Hall at Richmond Theatre | Review

It may well have worked reasonably well in the studio space that is Jermyn Street Theatre, but in the 840-seat Richmond Theatre, the intimacy of the living room setting is somewhat swallowed up by the proscenium arch staging. From what I can gather, the Allied forces captured a number of German scientists and held them at Farm Hall, a bugged house near Cambridge. It’s not entirely clear watching this production (having suspended disbelief at the theatre doors and setting aside whatever Wikipedia or other sources may or may not say about ‘Operation Epsilon’) why they have been held in England after VE Day – the first act closes with the news that an atomic bomb has been dropped by the United States on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

Farm Hall - George Jones. Photo (c) Alex Brenner.
Farm Hall – George Jones. Photo (c) Alex Brenner.

As the conversations in the front room were being recorded, there’s plenty of source material to draw from, as they were at Farm Hall for seven months or so. In this production, there are pockets of emotional intensity, particularly in the second half, but for the most part, things are kept so civilised and relatively calm (given the topics under discussion, that is) that it isn’t, to be blunt, all that interesting. On the other hand, there isn’t any point in forcing the sort of aggressive and exaggerated feelings found in soap operas if this isn’t the sort of behaviour the actual Farm Hall transcripts reveal.

Perhaps inadvertently, watching half a dozen cooped up in a house for months on end made me think of ‘the rule of six’ and those lockdowns, thankfully largely forgotten about but nonetheless a part of so many people’s lives not that long ago. Ceci Calf’s set includes peeling wallpaper, the sort of detail commensurate with higher priorities than interior design when a war has just ended and rationing is still being enforced. The costumes (also Calf) are all in order, with the cast attired in suits and shirts one might reasonably expect from sober-minded scientists.

Otto Hahn (Forbes Masson) was, as this show would have it, ahead of his peers in realising the sheer devastation and wider consequences of the atomic bomb. A later discussion about how to respond to their captors as well as to their own country in the light of their failure, for want of a better word, to develop and deploy nuclear weapons before the Manhattan Project did so, provided some insight into the dilemmas the scientists faced. Kurt Diebner (Julus D’Silva) is, in his own choice of word, ostracised by the others, who won’t even play board games with him – it only becomes clear later that his support for the Nazi regime stretches beyond lip service, unlike everyone else in the room.

It is suggested that the actions Werner Heisenberg (Alan Cox) took, or lack thereof, may have contributed to Germany’s failure to win World War Two – a bold claim, and one made with a mixture of stealth and subtlety. (Like Heisenberg, I’m not so sure.) The show felt longer than it was – two forty-five minute acts – and the sluggish pace, albeit in line with characters not having much to do, didn’t help: in one scene the audience patiently watches six men quietly waiting for the nine o’clock news. A production that left me with more questions than answers, I struggled to maintain interest throughout, and as I said at the start of this review, perhaps a smaller venue might have made the show easier to follow. At least the show does well not to bother with forced German accents, and there are moments that provide food for thought.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

“It was never about the Reich or the war. It was about physics.”
Based on a remarkable true story. Summer 1945, Hitler is dead, but the war in the Pacific rages on.

When six of Germany’s top nuclear scientists – including three Nobel Prize winners – are detained by the Allied forces at Farm Hall, a country house in the Cambridge countryside, they find themselves shut off from the outside world. Their entertainment? Some redacted newspaper, a broken piano and a copy of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. But as the months go by, their attention turns to the ongoing war and thoughts of their broken homeland.

The scientists’ tranquil summer is shattered by the inconceivable news that the Americans have succeeded where the Germans have failed, that the United States has not only built an atomic bomb, but has used one against Japan…

Unbeknownst to the scientists, during their stay, every inch of Farm Hall was bugged and their every action recorded. This play is inspired by the true events that took place at Farm Hall between July 1945 and January 1946.

The cast is a line-up of the crème of British actors with Forbes Masson, Daniel Boyd, Alan Cox, Julius D’Silva, William Chubb and George Jones. Under the guiding hand of director Stephen Unwin, previously the Artistic Director of English Touring Theatre and the Rose Theatre, Kingston, this production comes from London’s award-winning Jermyn Street Theatre.

Content Warnings: This production contains a loud bang, simulating an explosion.

Richmond Theatre
Mon 23 Oct – Sat 28 Oct 2023
Book Tickets for Farm Hall at Richmond Theatre

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1 thought on “Farm Hall at Richmond Theatre | Review”

  1. I’m glad I didn’t read this review before seeing “Farm Hall” at Richmond Theatre. I was riveted by the story and the staging worked well for me. I wasn’t surprised the German scientists were held at Farm Hall after VE Day: their expertise would have been of huge interest to the British and the Americans who would have had few scruples about picking their brains.
    Additional fascination was derived from the uncertainties: had Heisenberg deliberately questioned a colleague’s calculations, potentially sabotaging the outcome; how popular would that make them on their return to Germany; how useful would they be to the Allies if their work had come to nothing; could they argue they’d been working towards nuclear power, not a nuclear weapon, all along, would they be tried as war criminals? As it was, Wikipedia notes that they all went back to Germany and lived long lives continuing their studies and experiments. This play, for me, was a fascinating counterpoint to the film Oppenheimer.

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