Photograph 51 has the big star draw in Nicole Kidman but I’m afraid that is pretty much all it has going for it. The story of Rosalind Franklin’s work on DNA being erased form history should have been one of high stakes and great conflict but this play from director Michael Grandage was limp and, largely, quite dull.
The play is flat because, principally, Rosalind Frankiln didn’t seem much to care what her competitors were working on, or even if they ended up taking credit for her work. Indeed, towards the end you get the impression that Rosalind didn’t even consider them competitors anyway.
Well, if Rosalind doesn’t care about the politics around her work then neither will we.
Instead the source of ‘conflict’ in the play, the supposed narrative drive, comes from whether or not her male colleagues like her – they try some small talk, some chit-chat, in the labs, she isn’t interested; they bring her chocolates, she doesn’t understand why; they talk about their ex-wives, she doesn’t care… It’s such low stakes stuff that it’s a battle not to drift off.
And the supporting characters are all rather forgettable. Stereotype stuff. There’s the odd attempt at gender politics with reference to male-only canteens and the repeated omission of ‘Doctor’ when they address Rosalind but none of it is radical stuff and it’s just left to drift off rather than fully explored, which is doubly disappointing considering the playwright is a woman – Anna Ziegler.
Sadly not even the science element of the story was exploited to its maximum. Earlier this year, the RSC’s Oppenheimer was a great demonstration in how the dry can be made dramatic. Science can be fun, kids, but not here. The opportunity to talk about the beauty and brilliance of the helix, of DNA structure, was pretty much left to wither away.
Nicole Kidman, though, is excellent. Her English accent is so crisp and perfect that it’s better than mine. There’s a terrific realism in her acting and without her this play would have little to recommend it. Aside from her brilliance and star power, there’s nothing to be excited about here.
Noel Coward Theatre, London to November 21, 2015
All photographs © Johan Persson.