Sandy Pritchard-Gordon

Sandy Pritchard-Gordon
Theatre Blog

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Photograph 51 at The Noel Coward Theatre

Photograph 51 highlights the very important role the director plays in making a production a success.  Oh, and of course, the actor playing the lead role.  Because this new play by Anna Ziegler isn’t so much a fully rounded finished article, more a sketch.  It has taken Michael Grandage and Nicole Kidman to turn it into an absorbing piece of theatre that has as much to say about sexism in the workplace as it does science. 

The set itself is a rather gloomy affair, showing, as it does, the bombed out ruins of Kings College, London.  It is here that Rosalind Franklin and her fellow, mail scientists had their laboratory, which was located beneath the quad.  However it does evoke the amount of devastation wrought on London during the blitz.

Based on fact, Photograph 51 tells the story of Rosalind Franklin a British Jewish chemist and X-ray crystallographer, who, although instrumental in helping to “crack” DNA hasn’t been widely recognized as such.  That accolade was heaped upon two of her fellow scientists, Crick and Watson, who garnered a Nobel prize for their efforts.  Sadly, by then, the heroine of the piece had paid the price of continually coming into contact with X-ray beams, by dying of cancer at the age of 37.  Anna Ziegler has utilized her artistic licence in suggesting that Franklin’s discovery was “stolen” by the two men, which is actually not the case.  For, although Franklin (or her assistant, Raymond Gosling to be precise) took photograph 51 that prompted the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, it was Crick and Watson who ascertained its significance.  Ziegler’s view of the proceedings does make for a more interesting story, especially as Franklin is portrayed as a tricky blue stocking, who is not at all interested in making friends with her work colleagues.  Single minded to a fault, it is work that drives her, not going out and having fun and it is suggested that it is this failure to interact and take risks that help prevent her enjoying the recognition she deserves. 

It’s not only Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of this highly intelligent, but ultimately buttoned up scientist that highlights her single mindedness, it is very much apparent in her wardrobe.  Attired in a buttoned up shirt dress, sensible brogues, spectacles and with hair dragged back, this character couldn’t be more different from that taken on by Nicole Kidman during her last foray onto the British stage.  But then, she is an actress and, actually, despite the dowdiness, a sexiness does shine through - which isn’t lost on her male counterparts.

Apart from Maurice Wilkins (Stephen Campbell Moore) the remaining male roles aren’t fully fleshed out, but thanks to Michael Grandage the play works and works well.  It is a fluid production not without humour and his staging ensures that one isn’t bogged down by scientific jargon.  Unlike many primarily film actors, Nicole Kidman’s diction is crisp and we hear every word.  She is as perfect in this role as she was in The Blue Room and I am very much a paid up member of her fan club.

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