The Principle Of Uncertainty is a profoundly unusual show, digging deep into genuine hard science to expound a complex metaphor about the nature of life. It poses questions about what we can truly understand; whether we can ever fully analyse the things we measure and observe. The answer is "no". But we can only do our best, so here are some measurements and observations of my own.
The play is 50 minutes long, and 37 of those minutes are taken up by a physics lecture. I don't mean that it's evocative of a lecture, or uses a lecture as a framing device – I mean that it's literally a lecture, delivered by a brightly spirited academic who speaks to us as though we're university students on the first day of term. The house lights are up, and mathematical equations lurk in the background; at the 15-minute mark, our host gets out the dry-wipe markers and begins to scribble on a whiteboard.
It's a good lecture, well-explained, pitched at a level which demands concentration but which doesn't require unreasonable background knowledge to understand. Focussing on quantum mechanics, the material's similar to what you'd find in a popular science book, blending accurate theory with a sense of wonder at the strangeness of the universe. Actor Abi McLoughlin is utterly convincing as the academic, capturing that unique mix of passion for her subject and awareness of her status which I remember from my own university days; there are some jokes in there, but they're exactly the kind of mildly-tickling over-rehearsed lines a real lecturer would deliver.
The problem is that the people this show is most likely to appeal to – the ones who recognise the reference in the Principle of Uncertainty title – are precisely the ones who'll find this content dull. I'm in that category, and there was nothing in those 37 minutes which was in any way new to me. If you know about the double slit experiment, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Schrödinger's Cat, then there won't be anything new to you either. The treatment of the material is engaging, yes, but that wasn't enough to counteract a mammoth block of exposition of things I already know.
I could also see from very early on where this was all heading, and a handful of remarks sprinkled through the lecture – delicately and skilfully highlighted by the subtlest of changes of tone – duly lead to a big revelation once those 37 minutes finally expire. But it’s too late; the transition felt crunching to me, the details revealed too quickly and too easily. While McLoughlin carries her character successfully through a sudden change in mood, and the emotions she displays are both truthful and affecting, it felt like a missed opportunity to follow her through a slower, more revealing journey.
The final 13 minutes do touch on some big and interesting topics – faith, regret, hope when things seem hopeless – and the imagery is convincing throughout, with an analogy involving motorway junctions a particularly clear and poignant way of bringing the central concept home. But if it takes you three-quarters of your running time to explain the metaphor you're using, perhaps that metaphor was the wrong one to choose. The Principle Of Uncertainty is genuinely educational, and extremely well-performed – but I can't say I found it a satisfying piece of theatre.