Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Theatre review: Photograph 51

The last time Nicole Kidman appeared on a London stage she famously got her neeps and tatties out; the sight gave an elderly critic an erection we've had to hear about for the best part of two decades. He's retired now, so I guess Kidman felt safe to return, with her pants on this time (better safe than sorry,) to play Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51. Anna Ziegler’s play looks at the race to discover the structure of DNA - although, in what will turn out to be a fatal flaw that consigned her to a footnote in history, Franklin never quite realises that it is a race. Soon after the War, she's working in Paris when a place at King's College becomes available. But she may have been brought there on false pretences as she's instantly taken off her work on protein: Dr Wilkins (Stephen Campbell Moore) wants her to help boost his own research into DNA, like pure theatrical Sanatogen.

Offended by the suggestion that she's been demoted to Wilkins' assistant, and made worse by his awkward attempts to welcome her, Franklin becomes instantly hostile to her new co-worker. It's left to eternal student and assistant Ray Gosling (Joshua Silver) to act as a go-between and keep things moving, like pure theatrical Ex-Lax.

Michael Grandage's production takes its inspiration from the underground laboratories where the Kings College scientists worked to set in the action in a kind of dungeon; Christopher Oram's set has more than a touch of the Chamber of Secrets about its cavernous backdrop, contrasting with the clinical centre stage area where all the action takes place. And clinical is a word that could apply to Franklin herself, which could have left the heart of the production cold; but Ziegler and Grandage cleverly build up the element of the scientist as a tragic character - even giving the suggestion of a doomed potential relationship with American researcher Don Caspar (Patrick Kennedy) - and avoiding the risk of pure theatrical Rohypnol.

As not only a woman but a Jewish woman, it would be easy to paint Franklin's obstacles as coming purely from prejudice, but Zeigler suggests something a bit more complex than that. It's not people's tendency to dismiss her but the way she reacts to it that causes problems for her, as well as a crucial inability to take a leap of faith: Plays about science like Oppenheimer show the biggest discoveries made by people whose genius borders on madness, but Franklin is so controlled and focused on proof that she can't make the mental leaps that her rivals can. She may have taken the titular photo but she can't see its significance in the way the eccentric Watson (Will Attenborough) can. He and Crick (Edward Bennett) may be willing to use underhand methods to get their hands on Franklin's findings, but they're not afraid of using their imaginations and possibly embarrassing themselves, which is what makes their research fizz like pure theatrical Berocca.

Kidman justifies her star casting by steering clear of pointless grandstanding, instead giving an understated performance that isn't afraid to show her character being hard work to deal with. It's risky but pays off in giving us sympathy for someone with great technical ability, but a lack of people skills and imagination that could have proved invaluable. On the flipside her presence means the play is in a West End venue it feels slightly dwarfed by - the discoveries may be huge but the story is quite intimate, and I could see it working better in a smaller venue like Hampstead. Not that it ultimately matters - it's an interesting if not stellar evening, and the crowds drawn by Kidman will no doubt keep the Grandage Company's finances in the pink, like pure theatrical Pepto-Bismol.

Photograph 51 by Anna Zeigler is booking until the 21st of November at the Noël Coward Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

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