Saturday 12 September 2015

Theatre Review: Photograph 51 (Noël Coward Theatre)

Photograph 51: Photo: Johan Persson
Science on stage can yield mixed results, from the charm and cheek of Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy, through the deep intellectual pleasures offered by Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen  to, most recently, the cutesy superficiality of Nick Payne’s Constellations

Photograph 51, Anna Ziegler’s new play about  Rosalind Franklin, the British scientist who helped to discover the structure of DNA but who, as a woman, was ultimately sidelined from the story,  isn’t quite up to the Copenhagen level. But it’s a lot closer to Frayn than to Payne. It’s a sober, solid, serious-minded piece of writing, sometimes a bit too eager to tell where it might show, but astute, nimble and thoughtful, nonetheless. Michael Grandage's characteristically crisp, lucid production – 95 minutes, no interval – keeps up the pace, delivering a gripping evening that, though starting a tad stiffly, gradually thaws into surprising emotion. Christopher Oram's design evokes both the restrictive walls of fusty academia and the puzzle of a chessboard, as its protagonists’ grapple with the mysteries of scientific discovery (and the mysteries of each others’ personalities, too).

Beyond the telling of an important, still-relevant story - as recent ill-advised comments have shown, the status of women working in science is far from resolved even now - the production’s big draw is, of course, Nicole Kidman, returning to the London stage for the first time since her turn in The Blue Room set an over-excited Charles Spencer salivating about “theatrical Viagra”. It’s to Kidman and Grandage’s great credit that her performance as Franklin never feels like a star turn: defining Franklin as someone who wasn’t “a showman”, Kidman captures without fuss and with great feeling the character’s prickly defensiveness, her intellectual drive, and her latent longings.

Echoing Franklin’s position as a woman in a man’s world, the production surrounds Kidman with an all-male cast, comprised of Will Attenborough as James Watson, Edward Bennett as Francis Crick, Stephen Campbell Moore as Maurice Wilkins, Patrick Kennedy as Don Caspar and Joshua Silver as Ray Gosling. Attempts at humour sometimes feel forced but Kidman and Campbell Moore succeed in making something truly moving of the Wilkins/Franklin relationship – with its misunderstandings and missed opportunities - finally revealing the piece to be a melancholy memory play at its heart. It’s doubtful that Photograph 51 will constitute anyone’s idea of “theatrical Viagra” but its quiet intelligence and unflashy approach make Grandage’s production a definite asset for the West End. 

The production is booking until 21st November. Further details here.   

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