New plays still remain in desperately short supply in the West End, where dramatic non-musical fare is served mostly by an endless stream of short runs of star-led revivals instead. But every now and then a producer is bold: currently, the Royal Court and Headlong have their dazzling production of Jennifer Haley's The Nether playing on St Martin's Lane, and now around the corner on the Strand the RSC have transferred their own commissioned play Oppenheimer to the Vaudeville, after a premiere at Stratford-upon-Avon in January.
Both plays are about important subjects: the corrupting power of the internet, in the first case, and the even more deadly accomplishments of science to build a devastating bomb in the second. The first concerns an imagined (near?) future; the second, an all-too-recent past that has changed us forever. Oppenheimer is part history lesson, part biographical play about the man who spearheaded the so-called Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb.
It's a completely absorbing play, unstintingly performed by a cast of some 20 actors, across a leisurely three hour running time. But the play, though it occasionally has a tendency to tell rather than show events, never feels baggy; it gets inside the heart of its characters' minds as well as their science to offer a theatrically alive play that takes the audience on a journey into both.
A remarkable ensemble is led by star-in-the-making John Heffernan in the title role. In a programme note, playwright Tom Morton-Smith describes the impetus for bringing Oppenheimer's story to the stage: perhaps even more so than Einstein or Stephen Hawking, he has "defined the public's attitude towards science in our society. His is an epic story - Shakespearean in its rise and fall - and, for me, it felt like the most natural and appropriate subject matter for a play at the RSC." It could become a modern classic.