Things are never very simple in the plays of Joe Penhall; they always offer a welcome amount of substance to chew on. But he may have bitten off a little too much in his latest work. His principal area of examination is fascinating. Engineer/designer Ned, having conceived a system that would make unmanned “aerobots” much more efficient not just as tools of surveillance but also as weapons platforms, finds himself drawn into a war of ethics and imperatives on two fronts. With his brother, the question is the obvious one of whether such advances help make war “cleaner” by lessening mis-targeted attacks, or rather increase opportunities for butchery at a far remove. But when Ned begins to resile, the commercial director of the firm he works for hits him with everything from contractual obligation to his allegedly moral obligation to help keep Britain ahead in the global market of arms manufacture and sales. At this point, enter an MI6 spook (Jason Watkins), at first comic but quickly moving into territory that reminds us that, in many ways, Kafka was no more than mildly foresighted.
That’s a lot of intellectual and emotional subject matter. Add various undercurrents comparing Ned’s ethics with those of his Botox-peddling dentist brother, comparing their respective marriages, comparing Ned rather too unsubtly with Leonardo da Vinci (another instinctive genius who invented weapons almost incidentally), and the result is that Penhall, director Roger Michell and we as viewers always have several plates to keep spinning at once. Julian Rhind-Tutt as brother Dan is a little too keen to be the new Bill Nighy, all vocal and physical tics, but is also so fluid that, when he accidentally spilled a glass of water on the press night, he effortlessly incorporated it into his argument at that very point. Rhind-Tutt’s Green Wing co-star Pippa Haywood gives rather too quick a sketch of the arms company director, in contrast with Tom Hollander’s wonderfully detailed portrayal of Ned. From his odd quirk in the opening scene of momentarily crossing one foot over the other while he stands, to his shambling, chuckling self-laceration in the final scene, it is a fine performance that does much to keep all those plates in the air – most of the time.
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