'Photograph 51': Theater Review

Nicole Kidman - H 2015
Courtesy of Johan Perrson
Kidman just about manages to shine, despite uninspired staging and dowdy source material.

Nicole Kidman returns to the West End to play scientist and feminist icon Rosalind Franklin, long denied full credit for her groundbreaking work on DNA.

Back on the London stage for the first time in 17 years, Nicole Kidman sharpens her feminist credentials in the first British production of Anna Ziegler's 2008 play Photograph 51. The last time she appeared on the West End, directed by Sam Mendes in David Hare's The Blue Room, one critic famously branded Kidman's sizzling performance "pure theatrical Viagra."  Her latest role is almost the polar opposite, playing the frosty and spinsterish Rosalind Franklin, the young British-Jewish chemist whose crucial role in mapping the structure of DNA was overlooked for years by a male-dominated scientific establishment.

The production is directed by Michael Grandage, formerly of the Donmar Warehouse, now heading his own theater company, who has recently wrapped his debut feature film with Kidman, Genius. Grandage has a long track record of starry productions in both London and New York, yet Photograph 51 feels oddly staid and conventional, perhaps because Ziegler's play is essentially a middling blend of straight bio-drama and high-school science lesson. Without Kidman's marquee appeal, it would have been an unusually dowdy choice for the West End.

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Fortunately, Kidman delivers. Sporting a lab coat and tidy brunette hair, and deploying that clipped English accent familiar from screen roles like The Hours, her performance is muted but reliably intense, hinting at wounded depths beneath Franklin's implacably chilly exterior. Constrained by the obligation to keep his heroine within the limits of plausibility, Grandage settles for milking maximum comic bite from Mary Poppins-ish lines like "As a girl, I prided myself on always being right," and "Laziness? I don't believe in it." But there are no emotional fireworks, no grandstanding epiphanies, no Viagra moments here. Even if some of Franklin's male colleagues found her stern ice-queen aura arousing, as Ziegler hints, this is not Fifty Shades of DNA.

The play compresses Franklin's crucial career phase during the early 1950s into a single 95-minute act, specifically her work on X-ray diffraction images of DNA at King's College in London. Here, she fights daily battles for respect and equality against her condescending, chauvinistic boss Maurice Wilkins (Stephen Campbell Moore), while his charmingly goofy assistant Ray Gosling (Joshua Silver) serves as comic relief.

Actually taken by Gosling under Franklin's tutelage, the photograph of the title became the key image that helped confirm DNA's double helix structure, eventually winning a Nobel Prize for Wilkins and his friendly rivals at Cambridge University, James Watson (Will Attenborough, grandson of Sir Richard) and Francis Crick (Edward Bennett). By this time, Franklin was already four years dead from ovarian cancer, aged just 37.

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Christopher Oram's stage design is static and spacious, a single all-purpose set lined with stone archways suggestive of Victor Frankenstein's dank basement laboratory, which resonates on both a literal and symbolic level. The stage itself is a grid of opaque white squares that light up intermittently, chiefly when characters step out of a scene to address the audience. Alas, Grandage resists the temptation to use them as an illuminated disco dance floor, Saturday Night Fever-style. Strangely, he also makes no attempt to visually represent the DNA double helix onstage, as some U.S. productions did. A glaring missed opportunity.

Photograph 51 slips fluidly between two time frames, one during Franklin's life, the other after her death, with Wilkins and his fellow scientists reflecting on her posthumous reputation — and, on some level, trying to salvage their own. The tone initially feels like a creaky English drawing-room comedy from the 1960s, overly reliant on stuffed-shirt caricatures and labored banter, sprinkled with casual sexism and anti-Semitism. The lines get faster, smarter and more poetic in the final half-hour, but never quite shake off the sense of a musty provincial theater piece.

Grandage's production is a worthy effort, but a little passionless, inherently limited in dramatic force by its subject matter. Because Franklin died tragically young, lived mainly for her work and reportedly never had any kind of romantic relationship, directors and playwright are faced with the options to speculate or fabricate if they want emotional context to help sweeten long stretches of dry scientific detail. Ziegler drops a few hints about Franklin's secret crushes and minor flirtations, but these are very inconclusive and timidly handled.

Kidman says she chose Photograph 51 partly to correct the injustices of history, and partly to pay tribute to her biochemist father Anthony, who died last year. In truth, Franklin's reputation has been thoroughly rehabilitated in the decades since her death. She even has a university faculty named after her barely 10 minutes' walk from this theater.

But sexism in science remains a live issue. Recent off-color jokes by Nobel Prize-winning professor Tim Hunt about the dangers of allowing "girls" into laboratories became a major news story in Britain, helping to generate an extra blast of free publicity for Kidman's stage comeback. Not that she will need it. Photograph 51 is already heavily booked for much of its three-month run, a testament to celebrity power more than to strong writing or great directing.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The production was reviewed at a preview performance prior to its official opening.

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Stephen Campbell Moore, Joshua Silver, Will Attenborough, Edward Bennett, Patrick Kennedy
Director: Michael Grandage
Playwright: Anna Ziegler
Set and costume designer: Christopher Oram
Lighting designer: Neil Austin
Music and sound designer: Adam Cork
Presented by Michael Grandage Company