Review Roundup: THE HARD PROBLEM Opens in the West End

THE HARD PROBLEM is Tom Stoppard's first play for the stage since Rock 'n' Roll in 2006, and his first for the National since his trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, 2002. The production began 21 January and officially opens tonight 28 January 2015 at the National Theatre.

THE HARD PROBLEM stars Kristin Atherton, Anthony Calf, Vera Chok, Jonathan Coy, Rosie Hilal, Damien Molony, Lucy Robinson, Parth Thakerar, and Olivia Vinall. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, the production is designed by Bob Crowley, with lighting design by Mark Henderson, and sound design by Paul Arditti.

Hilary, a young psychology researcher at a brain-science institute, is nursing a private sorrow and a troubling question at work, where psychology and biology meet. If there is nothing but matter, what is consciousness? This is 'the hard problem' which puts Hilary at odds with her colleagues who include her first mentor Spike, her boss Leo and the billionaire founder of the institute, Jerry. Is the day coming when the computer and the fMRI scanner will answer all the questions psychology can ask? Meanwhile Hilary needs a miracle, and she is prepared to pray for one.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph: ...there's no getting round it: this is a major disappointment...The Hard Problem barely gets skin-deep. At times I had to pinch myself that it was written by the great man himself; and at others moments I almost had to pinch myself to stay awake...almost all the characters, with the exception of Olivia Vinall's sparky, vital Hilary, are annoying, lacking in depth and detail...It's hard to lay hands on the dramatic essentials, when we're continually bombarded with gobbets of learning, explanations so compressed you could tweet them...But mainly I felt a stab of pity for Hytner, who directs with style and pace...With The Hard Problem, Hytner has got a footnote, not a magnum opus. Stoppard's formidable legacy is assured but it won't rest on this.

Michael Billington, The Guardian: Tom Stoppard famously uses drama to explore problems, and in his absorbing new play he tackles some pretty momentous ones...Stoppard starts with the advantage of a vibrant central character, Hilary...Through the character of Hilary, he is suggesting consciousness cannot be explained in purely mechanistic terms and that there are intrinsic values that depend on an overall moral intelligence...Even if the play occasionally suffers from information overload, it is still a rich, ideas-packed work that offers a defence of goodness whatever its ultimate source. The play also works because we are made to care about Hilary, who is excellently played by Olivia Vinall. She brings out every facet of a woman who is altruistic, questing and vulnerable, and who asks all the right questions even if she doesn't know all the answers...Nicholas Hytner, in his final production as the National's head, directs with the stylistic clarity that has long been his trademark.

Paul Taylor, The Independent: I wish I could say that The Hard Problem rises triumphantly to this hotly anticipated occasion. In truth, though, it's a bit of a disappointment. Hytner directs an elegant, incisive account of a piece that buzzes with complex ideas, passionately and wittily expressed, but which never quite exerts a strong enough grip as drama...Here, the emotional life of the play feels somewhat under-nourished...Hilary, a young psychology researcher at a brain science institute whose luminous integrity and private sadness are excellently conveyed by Olivia Vinall...As always with Stoppard, there is much to ponder but, apart from Hilary all the very well-acted characters feel two-dimensional, and the play hasn't transmuted its research into an emotionally satisfying whole...

Quentin Letts, The Daily Mail: Sir Tom Stoppard...tackles the God vs Science question...Yet amid the words, words, words, he and director Sir Nicholas Hytner deliver spectacle, stimulation and preppy wryness...Here are 100 minutes of condensed brain-ache, marbled by wit and some camisoled sexiness...The Hard Problem is that most irrational of things -- a cool theatrical event. Amid several good performances, Miss Vinall declares herself a significant talent. This show is admirably high-minded -- a proper duty of the subsidised arts -- yet not as cryptic as some past Stoppards. It succeeds, in my view triumphantly, because audiences will be helped to address the greatest issue facing today's West, while still being able to form pointless, illogical attachments to fictitious characters. The Richard Dawkins aggressively secular view of the world is ultimately conquered by the alchemy -- the altruism -- of theatrical imagination.

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Photo Credit: Johan Persson

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