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Heavy matter in the Loft lifted by humour

The Physicists, Loft Theatre, Leamington, until July 22

At what point does science become the enemy of humankind? The dividing line is thin, rather like the tentative balance between sanity and insanity, comedy and tragedy.

Heavy stuff indeed, but Friedrich Durrenmatt’s extraordinary play, as boldly tackled by the Loft, attempts to lighten the load by colouring its complexity with manic absurdist humour.

On the credit side, this curious concoction is superbly performed by a company clearly committed to the task in hand. The humour, when it comes, is sharp and breathtaking through the sterling work of Tim Willis, John Fenner and Jeremy Heynes.

They are the inmates of a mental asylum, seemingly living out their individual fantasies and furthering their scientific ingenuity by resorting to what they see as justifiable murder. John Fenner’s depiction of a self-styled Isaac Newton has a deliciously laid-back amiability while Jeremy Heynes as Albert Einstein exudes gentle eccentricity. Their excesses are controlled by a sinister woman doctor delightfully drawn by Wendy Morris with all the comical trappings of a mid-European Bond villainess.

Under the direction of Rachel Adams, the play has clever and striking moments but it founders on a tiresomely leaden opening section until Tim Willis bursts on the scene with a raging lunacy which is positively inspired, magnificently controlled - and physically draining.

Durrenmatt’s writing later creates another tedious sequence as the inmates pour out their emotions and motivations in a contrived round of socio-political analysis. Here we are required to consider the values of scientific development weighed against issues such as the Atom Bomb, the arms race and human suffering.

The overall problem is that like the inmates the play has an identity crisis, ranging uneasily between farce, black comedy, heavy symbolism and theatre of the absurd. In the circumstances, the company does a fine job with strong visual effects, a clinically clever set design by Amy Rodger and some notably good supporting performances from Julia Findlay, Angie Collins and Kaz Sangha.

It might be difficult going at times but this production is never less than provocative.

Picture: Richard Smith Photography.

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