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A CurtainUp London London Review
Photograph 51

"I work best when I work alone." — Rosalind Franklin
Photograph 51
Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin (Photo: Johan Persson)
I am ashamed to say that I hadn't heard of Rosalind Franklin nor of Maurice Wilkins both of King's College London and their part in the 1950s discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, the building bricks of life. Maurice Wilkins was the third person to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962 for their 1953 discovery. I only knew about Crick and Watson, maybe because being brought up in Cambridge, they were local heroes working out of Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratories.

Although Rosalind Franklin had attended the University of Cambridge, it was after a spell at the Sorbonne in Paris that she came to Kings College London as an x-ray crystallographer. Christopher Oram's beautiful and magnificent set shows a Kings quadrangle after it had been bombed by the Luftwaffe. The classical building looks as if it could be a part of the catacombs.

Although the work of Marie Curie was recognized internationally, Rosalind Franklin has to fight for recognition for women scientists as well as coping with some anti-semitism. After a misunderstanding, when she first meets Maurice Wilkins (Stephen Campbell Moore), he mistakenly thinks she is an assistant rather than an equal. Not a malicious mistake but enough to get the pair off on the wrong footing. She is a prickly, difficult personality, driven and committed to science from a highly achieving Jewish family. This part of Franklin's character is well portrayed by Nicole Kidman but despite her straight posture, the plain clothes and the solid lace up shoes, it is hard to see the beautiful Kidman as anything other than a very attractive woman with a bad temper. Wilkins says that he has never encountered a woman of such temerity.

Anna Ziegler's new play aims to correct the history books in getting the recognition for Franklin that she deserves. It is her attention to detail in taking the X ray photographs that gives the image in Photograph 51 which when he sees it James Watson (Will Attenborough) says, "The instant I saw the image, my mouth fell open and my heart began to race."

James Watson was a prodigy getting his doctorate at 22 but Franklin is seen in this play arguing with the juvenile Watson. While Wilkins talks to Francis Crick (Edward Bennett) we see Franklin sitting with her head in her hands. Ziegler's play hints at the complex working relationship between divorced Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin. Tragically Rosalind Franklin dies at age 37 in 1958 of ovarian cancer and because the Nobel prize cannot go posthumously to anyone, she is excluded from the 1962 prize which goes to her co-discoverers.

Ironically the crucial photograph was actually taken by Ray Gosling (Joshua Silver), Rosalind Franklin's postgraduate student and technician. We see Franklin at her best with a Yale scientist Don Caspar (Patrick Kennedy) a structural biologist whom she goes on to work with on the tobacco mosaic virus at Birkbeck College and who becomes a good friend as well as a colleague. Rosalind Franklin has more in common with this American than the stiff upper lip British scientists.

Anna Ziegler's play is quite dense with its didactic references but Michael Grandage is a brilliant director and keeps the star vehicle 100 minutes engaging and full of 1950s atmosphere. And of course Nicole Kidman's stage presence is enthralling.

Editor's Note: Anna Ziegler is a young playwright who doesn't repeat herself. I very much liked her most recent A Delicate Ship and her Dov and Ali which I saw both Off-Broadway and in a regional production. For a review of an earlier less high profile production of Photograph 51 go here.

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Photograph 51
Written by Anna Ziegler
Directed by Michael Grandage

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Stephen Campbell Moore
With: Will Attenborough, Edward Bennett, Patrick Kennedy, Joshua Silver
Design: Christopher Oram
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Composer and Sound Designer: Adam Cork
Running time: One hour 40 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0844 482 5141
Booking to 21st November 2015
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 15th September 2015 performance at the Noel Coward, St Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4AU (Tube: Leicester Square)
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