Operation Epsilon at Southwark Playhouse Elephant – review

Andy Sandberg’s UK premiere production runs until 21 October

Peter Prentice, Gyuri Sarossy and Jamie Bogyo in a scene from Operation Epsilon at Southwark Playhouse Elephant
Peter Prentice, Gyuri Sarossy and Jamie Bogyo in Operation Epsilon, © Pamela Raith

With Oppenheimer packing out multiplexes this summer, the UK premiere and 10th-anniversary revival of Alan Brody’s play about the scientists who worked on the German nuclear program is certainly well-timed.

It’s set at Farm Hall near Cambridge, a country house where ten leading German minds, including multiple Nobel Prize winners, have been interned by the Allies at the end of World War Two. As we’re told by some rather clunky exposition, the building has been bugged, and the aim of the operation is to discover how close they were to making an atomic bomb.

The play, which is based on the original transcripts, provides a fascinating insight into the other side of the nuclear arms race. And what quickly transpires is that the Allies weren’t really in the race they thought they were. The German team, who were known as Hitler’s “uranium club”, had long dismissed the idea of the possibility of a bomb and had been focussed instead on building a nuclear reactor.

So when news is delivered by their friendly supervising British Major Rittner (Simon Bubb) that the Americans have dropped a bomb on Hiroshima, it comes as a blow. Werner Heisenberg (Gyuri Sarossy) takes it particularly badly, and becomes obsessed with finding the error in his calculations. He’s far from alone in attempting to save face. Precocious young physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (Jamie Bogyo – making quite the gear shift from Moulin Rouge!) fears for his promising career, as does skittish Erich Bagge (Matthew Duckett), who pleads that his membership of the Nazi party was forced upon him.

Unsurprisingly, the men’s personal situations trouble them far more than the victims of the bomb or the Nazi regime (Bagge even compares their luxurious confinement to a concentration camp). It’s only Nathaniel Parker’s brooding Otto Hahn, whose pre-war work on nuclear fission was a crucial step on the road to Hiroshima, and Nazi objector Max von Laue (Simon Chandler), who seem close to grasping the ramifications.

Andy Sandberg’s production plays a straight bat, unfolding on Janie E Howland’s detailed cutaway house set. It struggles a little for dynamism; the wide expanse of the Southwark Elephant dictates that the 11-strong company spend much of their time arranged in a long line. But the upper level and side office at least allow for some more intimate cutaways, and the cast make a good job of the ensemble scenes, even if the persistent arguing becomes a little wearying.

The proliferation of characters makes it difficult to get a full handle on each one, and the scale of it feels bloated; like watching a West End production squeezed into a fringe space. But it’s an undoubtedly diverting couple of hours shining a light on a little-known aspect of the war effort (it seems pretty shameful the men were confined for so long after the end of the war). And the fact Brody’s script gives the final word to a female scientist – Lise Meitner, whose vital contribution has literally been reduced to a footnote by her former colleagues – feels like some small measure of justice.

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Operation Epsilon

Closed: 21 October 2023