Photograph 51

Anna Ziegler
Michael Grandage Company
Noël Coward Theatre

Nicole Kidman (Rosalind Franklin) Credit: Johan Persson
Nicole Kidman (Rosalind Franklin) and the company Credit: Johan Persson
Joshua Silver (Ray Gosling), Nicole Kidman (Rosalind Franklin) Credit: Johan Persson

Dr Rosalind Franklin should be a household name. As a ground-breaking scientific genius, she is also an obvious feminist icon, which might explain why Nicole Kidman was tempted to take the role.

The doctor is a frosty, workaholic Englishwoman (albeit with an occasional Australian twang) who is dedicated to her science. So much so that, it is hinted, she dies aged 37 as a direct result of it, a possible victim of mysterious but possibly fatal x-rays.

It seems strange casting at first sight, as the humourless, frumpish scientist is a long way from the "pure theatrical Viagra" coined by Charles Spencer and its cinematic equivalents for which the Australian superstar is famed.

Anna Ziegler has written an affectionate 95-minute biographical drama that largely centres on a three-way race to discover "The secret of life".

The action takes place on a Christopher Oram-designed set that features the august pillars of academe over the broken ruins of war-torn London.

The opening could hardly be less auspicious for the determined protagonist, as she is recruited from Paris to assist Stephen Campbell Moore's mysteriously dim Maurice Wilkins at University College London.

Wilkins is patronising in the extreme to his Jewish, female co-worker and completely fails to recognise the intelligence and freshness offered by a prospective partner in the search to understand DNA.

The battle between the sexes in the lab that ensues can be almost comical, as related by their sidekick Ray Gosling played by Joshua Silver.

What we see but the central pair do not is similar characters colliding on both personal and research platforms, often explosively.

Their story is compared with that of an Anglo-American pairing who are now two of the most famous scientists of all time following their work in Cambridge across this two-year period starting at the beginning of 1951.

While Edward Bennett's Francis Crick is an unexceptional English family man, his partner in crime, the 22-year-old American James Watson, is a true nerdy eccentric with a hairstyle that might have embarrassed Shockheaded Peter.

Will Attenborough's character also combines an IQ off the scale at one end with social skills off a different one at the other.

Unseen in the background is the American Linus Pauling, potentially ahead of either party in his researches on similar material.

What Miss Ziegler postulates is that the meticulous research of the London duo and especially Doctor Franklin’s discovery of the DNA helix in the eponymous Photograph 51 proved to be the (stolen?) stepping stone to fame and fortune for their Cambridge colleagues.

Michael Grandage has the ability to attract some of the biggest names in show business to his company’s productions and there seems little doubt that the presence of Nicole Kidman will ensure that tickets sales are strong.

That might be as well since, in spite of the thrill of the chase and the tragedy of its central figure, Photograph 51 is not the most theatrical of pieces, relying on the science and the eccentricity of those around it to impress its audience.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher