Review: Photograph 51 (Noel Coward Theatre, London)

What’s it about?

The professional life of Dr Rosalind Franklin, an English chemist and X-Ray crystallographer. The play, here directed by Michael Grandage, focuses on her journey to discovering the makeup of DNA, her relationships with her fellow scientists, the battles she faced as a result of her gender, and her eventual death at the age of 37 as a result of ovarian cancer, supposedly caused by the radiation from her own apparatus.

The words…

At only 95 minutes without an interval, the play by Anna Ziegler speeds by, covering a large portion of Franklin’s life – from the point at which she joined Kings College, London, to begin her research, right through to her death. In doing so, I felt that it lacked the substance it needed. Scenes are played out as one- to two-minute snapshots from that period of her life. As a result there’s never any tension – everything is performed as a matter of fact – and the whole thing comes across more documentary than drama. Only when it slows down (Franklin’s date with Don Casper and the concluding exchange with Maurice Wilkins) does it manage to command the audience’s attention. And it’s a shame, because at the root of it, there’s a really strong and interesting story to be told, but Ziegler’s play gets too bogged down in context.

The talent…

Much has been, and will be, made of Nicole Kidman in the part of Rosalind. With tickets almost all sold out for the entire run, there’s an anticipation about her return to the London stage. And she does an adequate job – her portrayal is cold and yet manages to show the softer side of Franklin. Is it the best performance we have seen this year? No, but it does the job for the punters wanting to be in the presence of a Hollywood A-lister. Supporting Kidman are Stephen Campbell Moore as Maurice Wilkins, Edward Bennett as Francis Clark, Patrick Kennedy as Don Casper, Joshua Silver as Ray Gosling, and at this performance Patrick Walshe McBride as James Watson. This is as much their play as it is Kidman’s and all do a fine job of doing what they can with quite underdeveloped roles.

The design…

I’m a fan of Christopher Oram, and on the face of it, the design for Photograph 51 is typical; gritty, dark and cold. However, while this is by no means a poor design choice, it feels a little redundant in this production. What is quite an imposing structure is barely used, and does little to add context to the world around the lab in which Franklin worked. An underground space, the walls are made up of tunnels, while the floor is a mixture of laboratory and chess set, lighting up to highlight the action. Not only does this use of the floor contrast with the gritty surroundings, it segments the play further, highlighting its fragmented narrative.

The special mention…

This time around it goes to Adam Cork for a gritty (if underused) sound design.  Helping to give some kind of tension to the production, I found myself wishing there were more instances of his compositions throughout, if only to trick my wandering mind into thinking something vaguely engaging was taking place on stage.

Verdict: ★★☆☆☆

While I’ve been particularly scathing, this wasn’t an unpleasant evening, and the majority of the audience seemed to be lapping up (almost) every moment. But in my humble opinion, the root of the problem is in the narrative – it’s incredibly fragmented, doesn’t do enough to develop its characters, and can’t decide whether or not it’s striving to be a play that documents its source material or dramatises it. I left uninterested.

Photograph 51 is playing at the Noel Coward Theatre until 21st November 2015. Tickets can be purchased from the Delfont Mackintosh website here (although most have now sold out).

And the view…

For a whopping £10, this cannot be knocked. While I was a little (OK, a lot!) uncomfortable with little legroom and a very narrow seat, the view was great, and the chap in front’s head only marginally got in the way. I would happily pay nearly top price for the view but perhaps not for the comfort.

Noel Coward Theatre, Royal Circle, Row H, Seat 20
Noel Coward Theatre, Royal Circle, Row H, Seat 20

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