PHOTOGRAPH 51 Noel Coward Theatre, WC2

Nicole Kidman, an Oscars star descending again on the West End, is the “story” here; so begin by saying that as the half-forgotten 1950’s Jewish scientist Rosalind Franklin she gives a quite wonderful performance. She’s restrained, fine-judged, tensely weary and luminous in stillness or crackling with energy as the prickly, driven, brilliant biophysicist whose work getting images of infinitesimally small molecules led directly to a blazingly important breakthrough: Crick and Watson’s discovery of the double-helix structure and functioning of DNA.

They and her colleague Maurice Wilkins shared the Nobel prize in 1962; Dr Franklin herself died four years earlier, at only 37, her tumours possibly caused by exposure to X-rays in long days and nights in the lab. Kidman has said that this new play by Anna Ziegler attracted her because her own father was a biochemist, giving her a sense of scientific dedication. But any woman would burn a little with desire to record female pioneers in a time when, as at Kings College, even brilliant doctoral a woman wasn’t allowed in the senior common room. And would be – as here – automatically assumed to be an assistant not a prime mover, irritatingly addressed as “Miss” rather than “Doctor”, and dismissed as “a right old hag” when she asserts herself.

Ziegler’s play, told in short scenes and direct narrative by her and the posse of men around her, is a fiction based squarely on fact and memoirs. Under Christopher Oram’s toweringly macho, half-ruined postwar set of Somerset House looming over the bleak underground KCL lab, it gives Kidman some wonderful opportunities: sharp dry ripostes, sudden ferocities, and sour comedy as she fences with her lab partner (Stephen Campbell Moore oddly touching as the shy, defensively arrogant Maurice Wilkins). Her “I don’t want to be your friend” and scornful reference to his bad marriage when he clumsily attempts to win her over could alienate but oddly doesn’t: because by then we believe utterly in this woman’s focus. The work is everything, and the higher the mountain “the further I get to go”. Only in dealings with the amiable American PhD student Don Caspar (Patrick Kennedy), who shares her romantic joy in “shapes..endless repetition, the nature of the world” does she unbend. In a beautiful, sudden moment Ziegler gives her an imagined internal monologue, a yearning “to wake up without feeling the weight of the day pressing down, to fall asleep more be kissed, to learn how to be ok being with other people…to be a child again”.

There were moments when I worried that it would become a history-of-science lecture, and in its exposition of bickerings , rivalries and technicalities would curl up its own back end like a failed helix itself. But Will Attenborough’s crazy-haired arrogant young Watson and Edward Bennett’s sardonic Crick are an energizing double act, their blokey tesing relationship with Wilkins a painful contrast with the isolation of the clever “Rosy” who can’t talk things over in the SCR bars with them. And in the last third of its 90 minutes (Michael Grandage’s direction always spare, elegant) it lifts off, the metaphor of the double spiral which without touching feeds itself into life is replicated in the interaction of the pairs of humans.
That is moving, as is the ‘failure’ of the isolated Rosalind to see the extraordinary truth revealed in Photograph 51. Her photograph: the one that broke the intellectual dam and swirled the men to global fame. You leave reflecting on a neat irony: for in opposition to the cliché about emotional women and rational men, it was excited scribbling intuition which gave Watson the road to the answer, and meticulous insistence on irrefutable evidence which made the woman delay…

box office 0844 482 5130 to 21 Nov
rating four    4 Meece Rating


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