05/04/2015 17:28 BST | Updated 03/06/2015 06:59 BST

Theatre Review: Oppenheimer, Vaudeville Theatre


Oppenheimer is a powerful, intelligent, huge scope of a play that examines J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man at the centre of the Manhattan Project, and the professional and personal cost he paid to create the atomic bomb.

Set during the Second World War, writer Tom Morton-Smith and director Angus Jackson bring to life not just the man - "the father of the atomic bomb" - but the world in which he lived and worked.

Much like the powerful chemical reactions Oppenheimer is trying to create, this play fizzes with energy as it hurtles from one scene to the next. Private parties flow effortlessly into science lectures, and romantic clinches transform into scenes of tense office politics.


And the contradictions are fascinating - this esteemed elite bunch of privileged scientists at the heart of the story are all card-carrying communists working in and for capitalist America, and their passionate commitment to making the world a better place is going to see them create the most powerfully destructive force in the history of humanity.

It's frenetic and exciting but, of course, what is creeping up on you all the time is this wariness of the emotional distance this world of scientists have from reality. They are geniuses - smart, dynamic and ground-breaking - but the bubble they live and work in is making them increasingly remote from the society they are claiming to save - and to destroy.

At the heart of this play is an intriguing performance from John Heffernan whose J. Robert Oppenheimer is a complex, introverted and often contradictory man. A passionate principled man who suddenly throws away his communist ideals as soon as American funding comes knocking, and a man desperately looking for a woman to love him who pushes away any that try.


I love these contradictions, these complexities that writer Tom Morton-Smith has weaved into his story. The show is smart, challenging and thought-provoking but I do warn you, after three hours of such densely packed material, I did feel a little exhausted. Make sure you take a lot of caffeine beforehand - there's a lot of good stuff in here and you want to be able to take it all in!

I came away illuminated, for sure, but what I loved about most about Oppenheimer was its elusive heart. Even after three hours following almost every element of his work and his private life Oppenheimer is still a mystery - his motivations complex, his balance between compassion and vanity always unsteady.

Such ambiguity makes for a perfect conclusion, for much like his terrible creation that destroyed and saved so many lives, who's to know for sure whether Oppenheimer's motivations came from a good place or a bad one.


Worthy of all the accolades that have been thrown at it, Oppenheimer has transferred from the RSC to London for only a short time - a strictly limited run of only eight weeks. If you like your plays both fascinating and smart, it's a must-see.

Don't forget, you can read more about Tom Morton-Smith's experience in writing Oppenheimer in this blog he wrote for Huffington Post here.

Vaudeville Theatre, London to May 23, 2015

Image Credits:

1. Oppenheimer, 2015. L-R - Jack Holden (Robert Wilson) and Jamie Wilkes (Bob Serber). Photographer : Keith Pattison © RSC

2. Oppenheimer, 2015. Oliver Johnstone (Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz) and John Heffernan (J Robert Oppenheimer). Photographer : Keith Pattison © RSC

3. Oppenheimer, 2015. John Heffernan (J Robert Oppenheimer) in foreground. Photographer : Keith Pattison © RSC

4. Oppenheimer, 2015. Pictured: Company. Photographer : Keith Pattison © RSC