Reviews West End & Central Published 15 September 2015

Photograph 51

Noel Coward Theatre

Doctor, not Miss.

Tracey Sinclair
Credit: Johan Persson

Credit: Johan Persson

There’s always the temptation for the beautiful people of Hollywood to prove they are more than a pretty face by playing the dowdy, disabled or disfigured, often with a self-referential smugness that shines through no matter how sincerely they might believe in the role. It’s to Nicole Kidman’s credit, then, that she is resolutely unshowy and understated in her performance as Rosalind Franklin, the oft-forgotten heroine of the study of DNA. Her elegant, subtle performance is the heart of this smart, often very witty production, but the piece never feels unbalanced by her undeniable star power.

Photograph 51’s writer Anna Ziegler manages to balance huge amounts of info-dumping on a highly technical subject with the human drama of a bunch of mismatched personalities forced to operate in close quarters. The play deftly skewers both American brashness and English class, and there are a surprising amount of laughs to be wrung from such a potentially dry subject, with big swathes of exposition skilfully leavened with dry humour.

It would be easy to portray Franklin as martyr or victim, dead at a tragically young age and edited out of the historic discoveries her insight helped uncover, but Michael Grandage’s production admirably refuses to do so. Franklin is an enjoyably and unapologetically difficult woman – a prickly perfectionist whose obsession with getting it right and unwillingness to make imaginative leaps cost her dear. But for all her buttoned-down appearance, she is no puritan – she revels in her Parisian life, with its post-war access to culinary delights absent in rationed Britain, and gains real pleasure from nature and the outdoors – and the play does a fine job of recognising her personal limitations (a lack of warmth and empathy, inflexibility) while acknowledging these were not entirely of her own making.

We are constantly reminded that Franklin worked in a world where she was an outsider twice over: in Paris, she was employed in a city where, only a few years before, her religion would have been a death sentence – back in England, her reservations about the morality of the Manhattan Project have her casually labelled an ‘ungrateful Jew’. She is up against an establishment where sexism is endemic: where her co-worker Maurice Wilkins feels rebuffed when his conciliatory chocolates are refused, but fails to notice her infinitesimal flinch every time he incorrectly addresses her as ‘Miss Franklin’ rather than ‘Doctor’. His remedies for fixing their strained relationship are personal, not professional, and that fact that he cannot see this approach is exactly the wrong one illustrates the chasm between them. The play makes no bones about the fact that, had she been a man, Franklin’s stand offish personality would have been less of a barrier – she still would have been invited to the boys’ nights out and had access to the private dining rooms and clubs where so many of the real decisions were made.

Kidman’s restrained portrayal – every tiny movement counting, not a gesture wasted – is supported by a host of strong performances. Stephen Campbell Moore as Wilkins brings warmth and depth to a character who could easily have come across as a simple sexist boor: instead he is a man who, for all his talent, is inescapably of his time and hampered by societal mores. Patrick Kennedy’s Don Caspar feels slightly redundant – there to illustrate the more forward thinking attitudes of the Americans (though even he, once he gets his own doctorate title, suddenly forgets to use Franklin’s) and hint at the romantic road not travelled, but he carries the part with zest. Will Attenborough’s Eraserheaded Watson is all kinetic energy to Edward Bennett’s more lugubrious Crick, while Joshua Silver is gifted with the funniest lines as deadpan PhD student Gosling.

Christopher Oram’s evocative set beautifully conjures up Britain of the Blitz, but also feels eerily timeless: we could be as easily looking at the recently bombed remains of Palmyra, reminding us that rationalism and science will always have their enemies. And, since in England we still live in a country where a leading scientist feels able to pronounce that women in a laboratory are distracting to the real, male scientists – always crying and making them fall in love! – Franklin’s story feels sadly more relevant than it should be.

It’s a shame, then, that the production adds up to slightly less than the sum of its undeniably impressive parts. For all Watson and Crick’s frantic race to make their DNA model – and, subsequently, their mark – there’s a distinct lack of momentum, and an awful lot of Kidman looking thoughtfully at slides. Even more disappointing, in its final moments the writing loses the courage of its own convictions, surrendering to a whimsy that one feels sure Franklin herself would have rejected.


Tracey Sinclair

Tracey Sinclair is a freelance editor and writer, a published author and performed playwright. She writes for a number of print and online magazines and most recently has focused on the Dark Dates series of books, including A Vampire in Edinburgh. You can follow her on Twitter under the profoundly misleading name @thriftygal

Photograph 51 Show Info

Directed by Michael Grandage

Written by Anna Ziegler

Cast includes Nicole Kidman




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