German rivalry: Farm Hall @JSTheatre
What is it about German scientists that fascinate us? Whether it be Dr Strangelove or The Right Stuff, the German scientist from the time of war features as an omnipresent genius. But in Farm Hall, the debut play from Katherine Moar, it's the reflective scientist, not the mad crazy one, that is the focus. And in its brisk 90 minutes, you feel it captures the world's time and place. There was madness everywhere but not at Farm Hall. It's currently playing at Jermyn Street Theatre.
Farm Hall is based on the detainment by allied forces of several German physicists towards the end of the Second World War. Victory in Europe was complete, but the war in the Pacific continued. The capture aimed to learn how developed the German nuclear programme was through eavesdropping on their conversations. These men were the senior players in the German nuclear programme. Removed from the day-to-day world and confined to a decaying mansion, they play chess and card games and repair an old piano. And the boredom is only interrupted when the scientists discover the Americans dropped the first nuclear bomb on Japan.
With the variety of characters and fast-paced scenes as each rationalises their motivations for their work supporting Germany. The action takes place in the drawing room of Farm Hall. Designed by Ceci Calf, it’s a reflective of the impact of a long war. The walls are dirty with peeling wallpaper. If this was a stately mansion, its glory days were long past.
There are no caricatures here and the cast bring to life the diverse characters and their ambiguous moral positions. Alan Cox, as Heisenberg, is the de facto leader of the group, deflated by his efforts to succeed in making a nuclear device. David Yelland, as Von Laue, was an objector to the regime, and Forbes Masson, as Hahn, struggles with guilt over discovering nuclear fission (for which he also learns he will receive the Nobel prize in chemistry for his work while incarcerated). Then there is the group's outcast, Diebner (Julius D'Silva), the unapologetic Nazi supporter.
A play about the Second World War is always running somewhere on the West End. Usually, it's the same old story full of bravado and cliches. But on this occasion, this piece is a detailed character study of regret, guilt and exhaustion. And paints a picture of the disorganisation, mistrust, and rivalries within the German regime and potentially why they didn't advance further with their nuclear programme.
Directed by Stephen Unwin and written by Katherine Moar, Farm Hall is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 8 April. It will then transfer to the Theatre Royal Bath.
Photos by Alex Brenner