Photograph 51

by Anna Ziegler
Noel Coward Theatre, London

Michael Grandage kicks off another West End season with American playwright Anna Ziegler's Photograph 51, a compelling portrait of British scientist Rosalind Franklin whose vital work led to the discovery of the structure of DNA. It's a stunning production that marks the much anticipated return of Nicole Kidman to the London stage after 17 years.

The play explores the final years of Franklin's life, beginning with her return from Paris in early 1951 to her untimely death due to ovarian cancer. We see her as the illustrious academic relegated to the shadows in the cloistered world of King's College London, presided over by bumptious molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins. Nonetheless, she perseveres in taking X-ray photographs of DNA molecules, meticulously performing all her calculations by hand and trying to refine the images she obtains.  When Wilkins shares the titular photograph taken by her with rival scientists at Cambridge -  Francis Crick and James Watson - they manage to successfully unlock its double helix structure. All three men eventually earn the Nobel Prize for their efforts.

Photo Credit: Mark Benner

Kidman's performance as Franklin anchors the production. She catches perfectly the quiet ambition of a woman driven to make her mark in the world of science, a clubby, male-dominated milieu that casually excludes her from lunch and conversation. Kidman's Franklin is restrained but riveting; one is rapt as she gazes with undisguised wonder at the photograph that hints at the meaning of life or reveals her simple desire to learn more about the world around her. She also sensitively articulates Franklin's grapple with intimacy. In a moving scene, her aloofness when having dinner with a visiting American scientist belies the fact that she secretly longs to have a man by her side.
Grandage's taut, elegiac production moves along very smoothly and boasts some terrific performances. Stephen Campbell Moore shines with a deeply empathetic turn as the socially awkward Wilkins, a man who battles with his own feelings for Franklin until it is too late. Indeed, the play itself is structured as a fragment of Wilkins' memory and there is an undercurrent of melancholy about missed opportunities that infuses the narrative.

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

There is very good work by Edward Bennett as Crick, the chummy yet cunning Cambridge scientist keen to find out as much as he can about Franklin's work. Will Attenborough, last seen onstage in Another Country, makes an energetic impression as Watson despite a somewhat unconvincing American accent. And Joshua Silver brings the right note of self-deprecating humour as overlooked PhD student Jay Gosling.

Christopher Oram's set conveys the traditional yet grimy world of post-war London, its majestic, vaulted arches covered with soot. This heaviness is beautifully balanced with an illuminated floor that nods to the world of technology and photography; suggesting the light of scientific discovery in this most drab of environments.

One would perhaps be keen to learn a little more about Franklin's personal life and the revelation of her cancer at the end feels a little abrupt. Because the play is so focused on her experience, some of the supporting characters seem thinly written: the competitive academic, the friendly American. Yet, Photograph 51 ultimately remains a vindication of Franklin's invaluable contributions to the world of science. While she may have succumbed to her condition well before her time, her work was that crucial building block that led to this remarkable breakthrough. And for that, she deserves to be richly remembered.
The Crystalwords score: 4/5


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