REVIEW: Copenhagen at Minerva Theatre, Chichester

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at Minerva Theatre, Chichester. Picture by Conrad Blakemore.
Copenhagen by Michael Frayn at Minerva Theatre, Chichester. Picture by Conrad Blakemore.

Often the ripest material for a play comes from the unlikeliest subject matter. Take Copenhagen.

Reading the synopsis, I imagined it to be a spy thriller set in the Second World War, but in reality it was three ghosts - Danish physicist Niels Bohr, his German protégé Werner Heisenberg and Bohr’s wife Margrethe - discussing quantum physics and reliving a fateful encounter in Bohr’s Copenhagen home in 1941 which could have led to the Nazis building the first atomic bomb.
At points, it was as exciting as this sounds - but also as tedious; when the plot meandered away from the nuclear arms race into theoretical discussions about the universe, my mind began to wander.
The whole play is one long conversation, loaded with scientific jargon and framed in a sparsely-dressed set with just the three players - so what the actors say and how they say it is king.

We should have been in safe hands with double Olivier award-winner Paul Jesson and Olivier winner Patricia Hodge as the Bohrs. But despite the best attempts of the latter to keep the dialogue flowing, all three actors, noticeably Jesson, stumbled over their lines which undermined my confidence in their mastery of the play.

The subject matter was complex, the dialogue verbose to the extreme and each role came with mountains of lines to learn, but you shouldn't have to make excuses for extremely-qualified actors.

That being said, the production values were lifted by a effective lighting scheme, which reflected the warming and cooling of Bohr and  Heisenberg's relationship, and sparingly-used projections which gave me chills. The German physicist's lightbulb moment towards the end of the play, when he finally realises why he visited Bohr's home in occupied Denmark in 1941, at great personal peril, is a spectacle.

While Hodge deserves credit for injecting the piece with humour, these positives do not cancel out the negatives. It is a shame, because the chemistry between the trio was undeniable - but the chain reaction never quite took off.

Until September 22.