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5 star Review of Oppenheimer at RSC Swan Theatre

The cast of Oppenheimer.
The cast of Oppenheimer.
Photo by Keith Pattison

Tom Morton-Smith’s new play gets a bold staging in the RSC’s Swan Theatre. The play tells the story of J Robert Oppenheimer and the development of the atomic bomb.

We are first greeted directly by Oppenheimer himself, played by John Heffernan. He embodies the character with ease and the progression of his personality throughout the play is a natural change. From the moment he has the idea to create the bomb and the desperation he has to do it before anyone else, to his final words of the play, Oppie (as we come to know him as) is given power. Not only over the scientists who work for him to create the weapon, but power over people’s lives. It’s clear that he sometimes doesn’t know what to do with this power.

Catherine Steadman as Jean Tatlock is a standout performance in this production. Jean is one of Oppenheimer’s many women, and Steadman has a certain presence on stage you can’t help but notice. She is engaging and seductive while also being sympathetic and caring.

Interjected throughout the story are small lectures directed to the audience. These explain the science of what is being created in the play but in a way that is easy for a general audience member to understand without being patronising. The dialogue in these scenes is very conversational but feels wonderfully natural and unscripted.

A simple blackboard is used in these scenes, and diagrams and equations are drawn. But the idea of the blackboard and equations is extended to the stage itself. The stage floor is one huge blackboard. At times during the play the cast drop to their knees and start writing equations in chalk. At the beginning of the play the stage is a clean black. Throughout the play it gets covered in more chalk and it gets spread around from people walking on it so that by the end of the play the stage is one big mess. It’s a wonderful metaphor for the journey of the play and of the character of Oppenheimer.

The rest of the design in very basic. Rising above the stage and over the audience are two construction poles. Apart from this and a piano the stage is bare for the whole play. The main set piece of the production is the floor and the chalk. The lighting is beautifully designed but is not oppressive and the live band led by Jonathan Williams complements the play perfectly.

This play has a danger of being heavy and scientifically complicated, but Tom Morton-Smith’s script matched with Angus Jackson’s precise and perfect direction makes this an engaging and informative night at the theatre performed wonderfully by a very talented and faultless cast.

5 Star Rating

Review by Elliott Wallis

Tom Morton-Smith’s new play takes us into the heart of the Manhattan Project, exploring tensions between the scientific advances that will shape our understanding of the fabric of the universe, and the justification of their use during wartime, revealing the personal cost of making history. Directed by Angus Jackson whose recent credits include King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre and Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Swan Theatre
15th January to 7th March 2015

Cast: Ben Allen, Ross Armstrong, Daniel Boyd, Vincent Carmichael, Laura Cubitt, Hedydd Dylan, Sandy Foster, William Gaminara, Michael Grady-Hall, John Heffernan, Jack Holden, Oliver Johnstone, Andrew Langtree, Joel MacCormack, Tom McCall, Josh O’Connor, Thomasin Rand, Catherine Steadman, Jamie Wilkes

Writer – Tom Morton-Smith
Director – Angus Jackson
Designer – Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting – Paul Anderson
Music – Grant Olding
Sound – Christopher Shutt
Movement – Scott Ambler

Friday 23rd January 2015


  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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