The tragedy at the center of Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is this: it needn’t have been an awful play.
The basic premise of unlikely romance is unoriginal but sound. The performances are good. Ann-Marie Duff gives Georgie an energy and spirit that prevent her from being entirely annoying despite the relentlessness of her character. Kenneth Cranham’s reticent Alex manages to remain down to earth while being intriguing and enigmatic. The characters as written are knowable and believable. Interesting, even. And yet, they are stuck in an absolute stinker of a plot, so bad that by the final scene I had started to wonder if I were watching an unsuccessful film script that Jennifer Aniston and Michael Caine had rejected.
It’s not very often that I sit through a play cringing with embarrassment: but that is how I felt watching this one. Towards the end of the second scene – and thereafter throughout the rest of the play – I started to experience that creeping sense of horror every teenager feels when an explicit sex scene happens on television while their parents are in the room. I cannot account for this feeling, it was just there.
Georgie (42) and Alex (75) meet on a train platform. Georgie has just crept up behind Alex on the bench where he is sitting and kissed him on the back of the neck. Her justification for this is that he looked, from behind, like her husband, who is dead. Georgie feels a connection to Alex and keeps talking. Alex is indifferent and responds to her conversational overtures out of politeness. The conversation progresses naturally and is played deftly by the actors. At this point, the audience is interested. In the second scene, Georgie has tracked Alex down to his place of work. He is no more interested in her advances, but warms to her over the course of a conversation in which many of her assumptions about him and assertions about herself are shown to be false. By the end of the scene, they seem set to go on a date. The audience is intrigued.
From this point onwards, the play tumbles downhill like a fixie bike on Highgate Hill. Over the first two scenes we have established that although mismatched in some aspects, Georgie and Alex are a couple perfectly capable of getting together. The third scene throws all that good work away. Georgie’s outrageous flirting (“Your eyes! Your eyes!”) would make Forrest Gump question her sincerity. Alex’s suggestive mirroring seems incongruous with his reticent, buttoned-up character. In the next scene, having had sex (indicated by the set walls whipping back and forth in a way I assume was meant to simulate penetration) Alex, who has met Georgie three times at this point, has moved on to declarations of love. This seemed so ludicrous to me that it muted the horror of the hackneyed Hollywood plot device that was about to follow: Georgie admits she is planning to scam him – in fact, it was her object in meeting him.
From this point onwards, it was a question of trying not to look at my watch as I waited for them to wind things up, while working out how something that started off reasonably well went so horribly wrong. The central flaw seems to be that while the characters are developed to full depth, the plot isn’t. Played out over a few months or several weeks, Georgie and Alex’s story would remain unoriginal but would at least seem believable. Having met him more than thrice, Georgie might have had the opportunity to genuinely feel remorse for wanting to fleece him. Having got close to Georgie over months or weeks, it would seem more believable that Alex is willing to overlook her motives and focus on what attracts him. By cramming the plot into a matter of days, Simon Stephens makes the play a nonsense. It’s a shame because the actors – and indeed the characters – deserve better.