Photograph 51, London review: Culture Whisper says ★★★★★
Topping off a year that's seen a host of Hollywood's finest (Bradley Cooper, John Goodman) come to the West End, Nicole Kidman returns London stage after a 17 year absence to play overlooked scientist Dr Rosalind Franklin.
Produced by the Michael Grandage Theatre Company, who were at the helm of hits including Peter and Alice starring Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench, and Henry V starring Jude Law, Photograph 51's UK premiere has been hotly anticipated.
Photograph 51: Anna Zeigler
Based on the real life story of Rosalind Franklin, as she decodes the mysteries of DNA, Anna Ziegler's new play is named after the x-ray picture that first showed the double helix shape and became crucial to research on DNA structure. Though it was her research that prompted that underpinned the discovery, Franklin was robbed of prestige and recognition by three male scientists.
The story itself lacks drama: instead, told retrospectively, it is a subtle, serious exploration of the fragility of theories, speculation and objectivity. Elements of Ziegler's script are impressive: she creates an illuminating parallel between piecing together a story from recollections and makings sense of scientific data and remains analytical of her subject without simplifying either the science or the politics around it.
But the dialogue is sometime exasperating: elevated, postured philosophy and phrases such as 'when I was a girl' and 'stood atop a mountain' become jarring. The momentous discovery, the titular photograph 51, is not translated convincingly. The whole play revolves around finding 'it' but the repercussions of this knowledge get a little lost.
The strands of romance are frustrating and in a moment of reverie where "Rosie" announces that what she really wants to 'to be kissed' we found ourselves wondering what the real Dr Franklin would think.
There is some potent feminism in there, and much value in putting the story of an overlooked female in the spotlight. It's just a shame that as a play it is still dominated by the men. The final attempt at resolution a fleeting parallel life where Dr Franklin was less 'hard' and self-possessed, is a flat note upon which to end. We wanted to know more about how this remarkable woman got to the position of researcher, rather than just what was said about her after her death.
Nicole Kidman: West End successes
Happily, the patchier moments of the text are carried by a remarkable central performance from Nicole Kidman. World famous for films including Moulin Rouge, Cold Mountain and The Hours, the Oscar and Golden Globe award-winning actress is just as impressive in the intimacy of the theatre. Back in 1998 Nicole Kidman full-frontal nudity caused a sensation at The Donmar. 17 years later, her role could not be more different, but she is just as sensational as the formidably intelligent Dr Franklin.
Without ever trying to make the character likeable or vying to get the audience onside, Kidman commands the stage. Beneath a snarky, haughty and un-joking exterior, she shows flashes of brittle vulnerability without undermining Franklin's supreme seriousness. Most impressively, she makes a woman who is dismissed by her male colleagues as 'not engaging' completely captivating.
|What||Photograph 51, Noel Coward Theatre|
|Where||Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4AU | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
05 Sep 15 – 21 Nov 15, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£10 - £117|
|Website||Click here to book via Delfont Mackintosh Theatres|