Photograph 51

Posted by Laurence Green

Nicole Kidman gives a compelling performance as scientist and DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin in a play that encapsulates the ecstasy of scientific discovery.

Joshua Silver (Ray Gosling), Nicole Kidman (Rosalind Franklin) by Johan Persson

Nicole Kidman's return to the West End after 17 years has proved well worth the wait as she gives a luminous performance as a British scientist in Anna Ziegler's fascinating new play Photograph 51 (Noel Coward Theatre), directed by Michael Grandage.

The story centres on the often-overlooked role of Rosalind Franklin who made one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time - DNA's double helix structure in an x-ray photograph back in 1952.

We first see Franklin quitting a Parisian research post and coming to London on a fellowship, where she is placed immediately on the back foot. Reacting with understandable hostility to the news that she must assist the molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins in his work in x-ray-crystallography, this smart, stubborn and courageous woman increasingly retreats into her own world. Even when Franklin manages to crack the structure of DNA, she finds that the photographic proof passes via Wilkins into the hands of two fellow scientists James Watson and Francis Crick at Cambridge. The three men go on to win a Nobel Prize by which time Franklin had died of ovarian cancer at the age of 37.

While science remains at the forefront of the story, the play explores several themes about regret, lost opportunities and the male/female divide. Indeed Ziegler is not so much concerned with the hard-boiled history of science than its human dimension. Although the play is at times too documentary, as characters directly address the audience to explain developments we could instead be shown; Ziegler nevertheless writes with wit and tenderness about flawed and brilliant individuals.

This isn't an obvious star vehicle but Kidman shedding her glamorous screen image clad throughout in a simple dark-blue dress certainly makes the part her own, allowing only the briefest glimpse of the vulnerability and ambition behind Franklin's poised surface. Her unsentimental, beautifully calibrated performance (one of her best) offers multiple insights into the sad and honourable secrets of one particular life.

However, this is not just a one-person show. Stephen Campbell Moore captures the obduracy and awkwardness of Wilkins, while Edward Bennett and Will Attenborough impress as Francis Crick and James Watson, basking in the glory and fame of her discovery, and Patrick Kennedy is excellent as the American researcher Don Caspar, the only one capable of treating Franklin as a person rather than an obstacle.   

This tightly paced riveting production is further enhanced by the atmospheric set of Franklin's laboratory situated in the semi-destroyed vaulted brick arches of post-war London.

A rich and rewarding evening in the theatre!


Photograph 51

Runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until Saturday November 21 2015

Box office: 0844 482 5141 

Images: Johan Persson

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