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Feynman checks in

Clever Dick by Crispin Whittell

Jennifer Rohn 31 May 2006

A play of mistaken identities: fun but inscrutable

It’s all just a little
too clever...

A hot desert night: seedy neon motel signage, streaky rose and gold sunset, moonlight filtering into the room from a balcony with French doors thrown wide. An unlikely place for Richard Feynman to enter at dead run, be efficiently sick in the toilets then attempt to hang himself from the ceiling fan.

Thus begins Crispen Whittell’s latest play, which posits that the eminent physicist took a wrong turn outside of Albuquerque on his way back to lab – because he can’t tell his right from his left.

It’s June 1945, just a month before the Americans conduct their first nuclear test, and Feynman (played by Adrian Rawlings) hasn’t slept for 58 hours. Interrupted from suicide by an inexplicably ringing telephone, he decides that sleep might be a better alternative.

Fat chance. From then on, the room becomes the epicenter of furious activity. Matilda, the beautiful and spirited young receptionist (played by Jennifer Higham) had already arranged to meet Nicky Hilton, her sailor lover (Jamie King) in Feynman’s room and is none to pleased to find the wrong man in the bed. Giving him an earful doesn’t begin to describe it: Matilda has a lot to say, about Nicky, about life, and rather inexplicably, about herpetology. Feynman can’t get a word in edgewise, even when she decide to lecture him about nuclear physics.

In the meantime, a detective (Corey Johnson) bursts in on the scene, and at one point, even falls through the ceiling, convinced that Feynman has come to this remote town to pass state secrets to the Russians. The farce deepens as Feynman cracks the hotel safe to find a toad in a shoebox, Nicky arrives to rave excitedly about the latest Elizabeth Taylor film, Klaus Fuchs is spotted in the parking lot selling secrets to an enemy agent, a trampolining nun (Jenny Gleave) catapults onto the balcony and Nicky shows the audience what’s under his Navy whites.

Clever Dick is not ‘lab lit’ by any means – there isn’t a lot of science, and its exposition is delivered in a stylized, monologue form. Feynman is convincing as the wise but fun-loving presence that we know from history; after his initial frantic desperation, his demeanor deepens to an almost Buddha-like calmness as his surroundings become increasingly chaotic. But although the play is enjoyable, it never seems entirely clear what Whittell is trying to achieve. Is Feynman delivering a brusque, back-handed apologia for the weapon of mass destruction he is helping to create? Is the character of the detective an embodiment of the clumsy evils of McCarthyism? Is Matilda’s and Nicky’s young vitality a phoenix-like symbol of the post-WWII generation? We are never really sure.

The program notes don’t shed much light on this question, even though they are packed with extremely detailed historical vignettes about things that turn out to be entirely peripheral to the plot. It’s as if Whittell, unable to work all his hard-won research into the play, couldn’t bear not to use it somewhere. The characters of the detective and Nicky are even credited therein as ‘Fat Man’ and ‘Little Boy’ – code names for the atomic bombs that felled Nagasaki and Hiroshima, respectively. It’s all just a little too clever.

But in the end, when we find out why Feynman was so upset at the beginning, he and Matilda come to a truce-cum-father/daughter understanding, the play is surprisingly touching, even if we’re not exactly sure, after the dust settles, what manner of explosion actually occurred.

Live in or near London? You can book tickets to Clever Dick here; it’s showing at the Hamstead Theatre until 17 June.