The last time Nicole Kidman appeared on the West End stage — is it really 17 years ago? — my then-colleague Charles Spencer dubbed her appearance in The Blue Room “pure theatrical viagra”, thanks to a (very, very) brief nude scene in a play that revolved around a series of sexual trysts. Now she returns to town playing the late real-life scientist Rosalind Franklin, who discovered the source of DNA but was never given the credit for it during her tragically shortened lifetime (she died at just 37, of ovarian cancer that was almost certainly caused by her working unprotected with X-rays in her ground-breaking research that yielded the Photograph 51 of this play’s title).
This time, the play is about a series of intellectual trysts; and as my new colleague on The Times Ann Treneman has no less wittily dubbed it, “This is pure theatrical DNA”. This rich and rewarding play covers a lot of ground in a very short time — the play runs for just 95 intermissionless minutes — from the lonely and dogged pursuit of scientists, their rivalries with each other, and the personal costs of it all, to the ultimate prize, denied to Franklin but awarded to her colleagues who used her work, of the Nobel Prize for discovering the source of life itself in understanding the structure of DNA.
The West End, which long ago surrendered its place as a seedbed for new drama to subsidised theatres who then sometimes transfer their work there instead, is having something of a welcome comeback thanks to directors like Michael Grandage (whose company began a five-play season a the Noel Coward two years ago and now return with this solo project), Jamie Lloyd and (soon) Kenneth Branagh who have set up their own companies in town. Grandage’s further inspiration — and it’s a brilliant one — is to bring audiences back to the West End, and especially younger ones, with a pricing structure in which some 25% of the tickets for every house costs just £10.
That may not be quite akin to discovering the source of DNA, but it is changing the DNA of the West End in the process. And audiences of all ages will simply lap up this searching, inquisitive play by American writer Anna Ziegler, and the stunning cast and production that have brought it to life.
Kidman, who has recently worked with Grandage on the yet-to-be-released feature film Genius, brings a brittle intelligence to the role of the young, thrusting scientist who finds herself something on an outsider in 50s Britain: a woman in a man’s world (she can’t even join her colleagues for lunch in the men-only King’s College restaurant), she’s also Jewish. Around her, the men — distrustful of her apparent spikiness and untrustworthy themselves — revolve and hover as they compete to win the scientific race themselves.
A brilliant ensemble that comprises Stephen Campbell Moore as her King’s College boss Maurice Wilkins and Joshua Silver as her research assistant Ray Gosling, with Will Attenborough and Edward Bennett as Watson and Crick from Cambridge University and Patrick Kennedy as a visiting American academic who shows a romantic interest in Rosalind, are all equally superb.
The production elevates and enhances the West End.
"Even if the play could go still further, it proves that science is inherently dramatic and that the neglect of Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to uncovering the secret of life remains a blot on our history."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Grandage directs it all with characteristically fluid aplomb, placing the action (sometimes using neat, quasi-scientific symmetries) amid a towering set by Christopher Oram that evokes the bombed-out Palladian magnificence of King’s, piles of rubble lapping at arches."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"In her compelling and subtle performance, Kidman beautifully captures the prickly defensiveness, the lonely dedication, and the suppressed emotional longings of the scientist."
Paul Taylor for The Independent