The title, Clever Dick, of promising playwright Crispin Whittell could refer to the author himself, who has crammed his new farce of espionage, the atomic bomb, mistaken identity (and bedrooms), nudity, Einstein’s theory of relativity and a bouncing nun, with bits of almost every other living British playwright except, possibly, for Howard Barker.
Thank you Michael Frayn for the case history of the American scientist Richard Feynman (Frayn-man?) who cracked the safe containing the secrets of the atomic bomb in 1945 and has got lost in the desert in New Mexico as he doesn’t know his left from his right.
Cheers, Tom Stoppard (and a nod to Terry Johnson), for manufacturing an encounter with Conrad Hilton Jr (here called “Little Boy”), scion of the hotel dynasty, whose date with teenage virgin Matilda leads him to Feynman’s hotel room. And good on you, Ray Cooney, for winding up the action with a bonehead Private Dick who finally, and spectacularly, falls through the ceiling in the chase scene.
Whittell, who is British but based in America, wrote the play in upstate New York in the months after George Bush’s re-election. He assembles all his biographical/fantastical elements with no little skill and there is much to admire in his dialogue (and indeed some well designed long speeches) and in the performances he elicits from a cast of just five characters (not enough, you feel, to really make farce fizz). But pushing so many ingredients through a blender makes things blander.
‘Dick’, known as Fat Man, accuses Feynman of being a counter-intelligence spy. This paranoia is offset against the cultural awakening of Matilda (attractive, very funny Jennifer Higham), who has opened a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and the effusive enthusiasm of the sailor-suited Little Boy (Jamie King, who looks cute in and out of his uniform) for the movies of Lassie and National Velvet.
Somehow, Adrian Rawlins (best known as Harry Potter’s Dad in the movies) as Feynman keeps his dignity and sense of scientific purpose - he even gets the girl who crept by mistake into his bed. Rawlins is a sympathetic and resourceful actor, and he certainly knows how to weigh his lines, and reactions, for maximum effect.
Michael Taylor’s design of the hotel bedroom is one of the best at this address for some time, flooded with New Mexico sunsets and with all the doors in the right places for the shenanigans. Corey Johnson maintains a profile both intense and ridiculous as the overweight gumshoe, and Jenny Gleave turns out to be not a penguin but a nun on a trampoline. The animal kingdom is in fact represented by a frog in a shoebox, which is at least spared the grisly fate of Stoppard’s tortoise in Jumpers.