Review: Photograph 51


After watching a play about credit not being given where it is due, it would be wrong to say here that Nicole Kidman's first performance on the London stage since 1998 - when a critic famously described the star as ''theatrical Viagra" - is this time the "opposite of theatrical Viagra." At least not without giving full credit to my guest on press night who said it. But it's true. The sensual, sexual role Kidman played in David Hare's The Blue Room 17 years ago is the complete opposite of the role she plays this time, the austere Jewish heroine of Anna Ziegler's new play.

Kidman plays Rosalind Franklin, the scientist whose work in post-war London's King's College on identifying the structure of DNA was crucial in revealing "the secret to life". According to Ziegler's biographical play, it was Franklin's work that allowed competing scientists Francis Crick (Edward Bennett) and the American James Watson (Will Attenborough) to pip Franklin to making the discovery. And so it was not they who deserved the Nobel Prize as a result.

Visually, Michael Grandage's production is an eyeful of dourness. Franklin's London lab, which she awkwardly shares with well-meaning but chauvinistic fellow scientist Maurice Wilkins (Stephen Campbell Moore) is located in a dimly lit catacomb under King's College. Rubble spills out on to the fringes of the stage and above soars the college itself, like a beached battleship. And of course central is Kidman's Franklin, dressed as grey as her surroundings.

It's a terrifically contained performance. Kidman transmits Franklin's intimidating intellectual rigour but also the silent frustration that goes with working amid chauvinism and living in a still antisemitic post-war world. But, as good as she is, Grandage's production fails to make the most of Franklin's story.

There was clearly a deliberate decision to withhold from the audience any sight of the much elusive double helix structure. But its absence feels like a missed opportunity. Meanwhile, another structure, that of Ziegler's play, also presents problems.

The action is framed within a retrospectively told account of events that sees characters address the audience like witnesses of a crime in which they were complicit. Perhaps they were.

Certainly the impression given is that terrible injustices were visited on Franklin by most of the men in her orbit who took credit for her work and dedication.

But the context in which they are giving their evidence is never really made clear beyond it being a kind of guilt-driven exercise. The result is an evening of 90 uninterrupted minutes that certainly holds the attention.

But it stimulates the mind more than the emotions. A little like Franklin herself.

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