The first and last time Nicole Kidman appeared on a West End stage one critic got himself into a right old tizzy, probably tenting in his stalls seat before breathlessly describing her as “Pure theatrical Viagra“.
Phil saw that play, The Blue Room, in preview and was met by a US TV crew from Entertainment Tonight as he exited the Donmar wanting to know how she’d acquitted herself. Of course, what they really wanted to know was intimate details of her nude scene, Phil was so discreet in his utterances they no doubt left the footage on the cutting room floor.
17 years on, would Kidman’s appearance in Photograph 51 prove to be theatrical Viagra or theatrical bromide?
To disappoint the dead white male critics there is no nudity this time. They will be treated to sensible shoes and a frock, sometimes accessorised with a white lab coat and a hair do that wouldn’t be out of place on Jenny Seagrove. Kidman is Rosalind Franklin, English chemist, expert in the field of X-ray crystallography investigating the molecular structure of DNA. It’s the 1950s and she’s not only struggling to understand the structure of the double helix but also the male-dominated foibles of King’s College London where she’s employed as a research associate to Michael Wilkins (Stephen Campbell Moore).
Kidman’s slightly thin-voiced English accent and stiff, clipped, prickly demeanour suits the role of a woman who lived obsessively for her isolating work leaving little time for anything else apart from the occasional trip to Switzerland or a Shakespeare matinee. Certainly no time for a man in her life, although a couple of them seem as interested in her as they are her research. Men? What are they like?
SPOILER ALERT. Her male fellow scientists; James Watson (Will Attenborough bearing more than a passing resemblance to his grandfather, Richard in Brighton Rock), Francis Crick (Edward Bennett) and Wilkins see something in her research that she has so far missed, shamelessly run with it and go on to take the credit along with the Nobel Prize.
Michael Grandage‘s direction of Anna Ziegler‘s play suggests initially that this will be a static story as characters frequently come to the front of the stage to address the audience. A device American playwrights are overly prone to using. But there are enough surprises (if you don’t know what happened) to make it a compelling and fascinating tale of ambition and dedication with a decent sprinkling of dry humour and ultimately poignancy.
The supporting cast (completed by Patrick Kennedy and Joshua Silver) are able to flesh out very decent performances despite it being dealt with in a wonderfully economical interval-free 90 minutes. A neatly linked series of scenes towards the end condenses three events, all different pairings; her first date, the discovery of the double helix and one tragic twist of fate that had Phil’s companion for the evening welling up.
The complicated science is made relatively easy to follow. Phil now knows that phosphates stick to the outside of helices, or something. We were left more perplexed by what Christopher Oram‘s set represented with its thick decaying arches (in need of a good scrub) giving way to a light up disco floor. Crumbling archaic traditions versus laboratory efficiency was the best we could come up with.
We never get to see the important photo apart from the small transparency that Franklin stares at endlessly. Here it is on the right – no us neither, we’d probably have discovered the X Factor souvenir doughnut.
The Kidman Effect means that ushers must understandably patrol the stalls brandishing “No cameras” signs before the play begins (and enforce it during the curtain call). Kinda ironic really.
Phil came out thinking the play easily deserved a decent 3 glass rating. But having stared long and hard and thinking about if for some not inconsiderable time afterwards has led to his own Eureka moment…