The Bomb – A Partial History

Published February 21, 2012

It is fitting that Artistic Director Nicolas Kent bows out of the Tricycle theatre with an explosive cycle of short plays about nuclear armament.

During his 28 years at the head of the Kilburn venue, he has built a reputation for tackling incendiary political issues through drama. With this final offering he goes out with a bang as nine playwrights explore the history and current issues of nuclear arms in ten short pieces.

As ever with the Tricycle’s cycles – which previously included The Great Game: Afghanistan and Women, Power and Politics – tone and topic ebb and flow through five hours of drama split into two parts, which can be seen together or separately.

Part 1, titled Proliferation: First Blast, concerns the emergence and growth of the nuclear bomb, from Zinnie Harris’s opening From Elsewhere: The Message, which finds scientists Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch pondering the wisdom of their actions in a Whitehall waiting room, to Amit Gupta’s memorable Option, set in a 1968 Indian nuclear facility.

Gupta’s piece finds Paul Bhattacharjee – a weighty presence throughout the evening – playing a scientist forced to make a life-changing decision by his country’s nuclear stance. As a portrait of Ghandi looks down from Polly Sullivan’s projected walls, the professor and his colleagues dance around the ethical issues of creating nuclear arms.

There is space for comedy amid the drama. Lee Blessing’s Seven Joys imagines the arms race as an exclusive members club, while John Donnelly allows a Hicksville Ukranian family, which could be described as one warhead short of a nuclear deterrent, to try and sell a missile they have stumbled upon, and fills it with innuendo and coital comedy that it doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to understand.

Part 2 – Second Blast: Present Dangers – has less to laugh about, though the chemistry between Belinda Lang as a rookie Prime Minister and Simon Chandler as an insistent civil servant is deliciously smile-inducing.

The pair team up in David Greig’s The Letter Of Last Resort, which may be the stand-out piece of the cycle. In its simple scenario of a PM having to write a letter to be opened by a submarine captain in the event of Britain being decimated by a nuclear attack, it encapsulates the arguments and paradoxes of nuclear arms without ever feeling pedagogical. Greig even manages to find poetry in the face of absolute horror.

It follows tales of subterfuge and deception, both national and personal, in Colin Teevan’s There Was A Man. There Was No Man, a cheeky look at North Korea in Diana Son’s Axis and an exploration of the Iranian nuclear programme and the intricacies of intervening in Ryan Craig’s Talk Talk Fight Fight.

One can hardly blame the impressive ensemble cast if, on press day, they stumble over a few lines; most are playing more parts in one day then they would normally hope to play in the course of a working year.

As with the Tricycle’s previous offerings there is much to be learned from The Bomb, yet it is rarely taught at the expense of drama, character or plot.

Though the threat of nuclear war is a petrifying proposition, it is, thankfully, currently hypothetical, the bombs still acting as a deterrent. The loss of Kent from the Tricycle’s helm, though less mortal a blow, is very real. Let us hope it does not signal the end of such enriching, engaging and necessary drama from the British stage.