Noel Coward Theatre, London
For too long, Rosalind Franklin has been the forgotten, `dark lady of DNA’, written out of history by those craftier, keener eggheads, Francis Crick and James Watson. Anna Ziegler’s new play restores Franklin to the limelight with a bio-pic drama that nicely balances the toughness and impenetrability of her personality with the sexism and prejudice of the scientific world of research which then, as now, surrounded her. Women and science are still, it seems, seen as barely compatible.
Ziegler’s play has been a long time in gestation over the water, in the US. Finally arriving in the UK it makes a solid, engrossing addition to the West End. It also launches Michael Grandage’s new season with a fanfare, heralding the return of Nicole Kidman whose previous appearance in London prompted one critic to compare her performance to the equivalent of theatrical Viagra.
Ironic then that the play in which she has chosen to return focuses quite specifically on sexism, in the nicest possible way. Ziegler’s Photograph 51 – the x-ray photo taken by Franklin that provided proof of DNA’s double helix – tells the story behind the Nobel prize winning discovery. Neatly communicating the tension of Franklin’s relationships with fellow scientists at King’s College, London where she held a Fellowship, Ziegler interweaves it with a thoughtful philosophical meditation on the nature of beauty, fate, regret, life choices and ways of seeing.
Photograph 51 doesn’t quite catch the brio and verve of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen to which it bears many similarities not least its narrating structure and intertwining personal and scientific lives.
Grandage’s production too takes no great risks. But Ziegler’s sensitivities are lucidly staged and the production boasts a terrific set by Christopher Oram of post-war King’s College with dark, exposed subterranean arches.
Above all there is Kidman, wonderfully almost unrecognisable, sporting short brown hair, a perfect English accent and exuding the grumpiness of the single-minded blue stocking. She thoroughly puts to flight the disappointment that usually accompanies film star appearances on stage.
Beside her Stephen Campbell Moore as her exasperated work associate, Maurice Wilkins, Will Attenborough as the ruthlessly ambitious Watson and Edward Bennett’s more laconic Francis Crick provide fine, substantially contrasting portraits.
Photograph 51 is at the Noel Coward Theatre to Nov 21, 2015
Review first published in Reviewsgate Sept 2015