Shining a light on the dark lady: Photograph 51, Noel Coward Theatre, London

Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51. Photograph: Johan Persson
Nicole Kidman in Photograph 51. Photograph: Johan Persson

I actually didn’t go to see this play because of Nicole Kidman. No really, I didn’t. I’m cynical about star vehicles for Hollywood actors on London stages – they too often feel like a nakedly commercial trade-off (star gets credibility, theatre owner gets high-paying bums on seats), with the potential for dubious quality-control as a result. What actually convinced me to shell out for tickets (and believe me, they weren’t cheap – not the silly money being asked by producers of Elf this Christmas, but still enough to make the credit card groan) was the presence of one Edward Bennett. I first came across him in the RSC’s recent Love’s Labour’s Lost (see here) and he’s currently ranking as my favourite ever Benedick (see here) .

His presence seemed to suggest that this might be more than an exercise in money-grabbing. I did some research, and discovered that Photograph 51 was about scientist Rosalind Franklin, ‘the dark lady of DNA’, whose work laid the foundations for Crick and Watson’s discoveries about the structure of DNA, but who was largely forgotten by the scientific establishment after her early death. I’ve found Franklin’s story fascinating since I first half-heard something about her on Radio 4, many moons ago. And, OK, I was curious to see how Nicole Kidman handled herself on the London stage.

So, how did she do? Well, pretty well actually. She’s good at conveying both Franklin’s intelligence, and her prickliness, while still making her sympathetic. For me, there are moments – in this particular performance at least – where her relative lack of stage experience tells. Her opening speech didn’t project well to the back of the stalls, although this improved as the night wore on. She wasn’t helped by a somewhat fidgety audience – cold and flu season seems to have begun early in London, judging by the amount of coughing last night, and there seemed to be an irritatingly high number of whisperers as well (yes, couple behind me I’m looking – glaring – at you). Despite her star power, she didn’t always seem to have the presence of the more experienced stage actors surrounding her. But I would go and see her again – if she makes the London stage a habit – and next time it would be out of respect for her talents as an actress, rather than mere curiosity.

I am aware of the irony of seeing a show which celebrates the unjustly unrecognized work of a woman, and then heaping praise on her male colleagues. But they are a very, very classy bunch indeed. They’re led by Stephen Campbell Moore as Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s bumbling colleague, who eventually shared the Nobel Prize with Crick and Watson after her death. The aforementioned Edward Bennett is customarily brilliant as the affable Crick, while Will Attenborough is a great mad-haired, abrasive Watson. I also liked Joshua Silver as Franklin’s PhD student Ray Gosling, who gets many of the play’s funniest lines.

They’re all well-served by Anna Ziegler’s script. It’s crisply written, and is very good at depicting both the clubby but back-biting world of male academia and the way that Franklin’s exclusion from it as a woman (at a time when the Kings College Senior Common Room was men-only) exacerbates the qualities that those same men criticise Franklin for – her refusal to collaborate, her suspicions about sharing data, her dependence upon facts and refusal to make the kind of leaps of intuition Crick and Watson do. It suggests that those problems faced by Franklin as a woman in a man’s world have almost paralysed her – unlike Crick and Watson, she feels unable to make mistakes.

As a depiction of scientific themes on stage this play has been compared unfavourably to the RSC’s recent Oppenheimer. Personally, although I loved that production, especially John Heffernan in the title role (see here) I thought this play could teach it a lot about brevity (Photograph 51 runs at a beautifully contained 95 minutes) and how to integrate science into a script without resorting to ‘here comes the science bit’ techniques. Also, well done to an American writer for depicting quintessentially British awkwardness so well.

I also liked the design of Michael Grandage’s production. The set is simultaneously grand and basic, with a backdrop depicting the towering walls and crumbling arches of a bomb-damaged, post WW2 Kings College, with minimal furniture or a bare stage in front of them. Characters not immediately involved in scenes lurk in the arches, watching and sometimes commenting upon the action. A less confident production would have felt the need to show us the models of the helix, around which the plot revolves. Here we see just beams of light, which Crick and Watson gaze at in awe.

Of course, it’s unlikely that a play by a largely unknown writer, about an obscure scientist, would be filling a West End theatre without the star power of Nicole Kidman. So – more power to her, for shining light into a dark corner of scientific history.

A stratagem for comedy

Geoffrey Streatfeild (Archer) and Samuel Barnett (Aimwell). Photo by Manuel Harlan
Geoffrey Streatfeild (Archer) and Samuel Barnett (Aimwell). Photo by Manuel Harlan

The Beaux’ Stratagem, National Theatre Live.

Restoration comedy. It’s a funny old thing, isn’t it? At once very modern and very dated, simultaneously sophisticated and crude. And Simon Godwin’s production of George Farquhar’s play, although fun, is a bit of a funny old thing as well.

Let’s start with the good. The cast are bloody brilliant. There’s not a weak link among them. The plot – such as it is, restoration comedies not being known for their plots – concerns two men of broken fortune, Archer and Aimwell – the Beaux of the title – who arrive in Lichfield seeking to re-make their fortunes by marrying rich women. Their plan, of course, is somewhat confounded when they actually fall in love. As Aimwell, Samuel Barnett is frankly adorable. As the more calculating Archer, Geoffrey Streatfeild is hilariously funny, whether capering about the stage, or simply saying the name ‘Martin’ (you had to be there – it’s a bit complicated to explain), and convincing as both lover and conspirator. I may be adding to my list of theatrical crushes here…

The ladies are every bit their equal – in acting terms, and in the storyline. Pippa Bennett-Warner is a lively Dorinda, and Susannah Fielding gives a beautiful, passionate performance as Archer’s love interest, the unhappily married Mrs Sullen. Despite my above somewhat snooty comments about restoration comedy, Mrs Sullen is a complex and convincing character, by turns despairing, coquettish and noble.

Susannah Fielding (Mrs Sullen) Pippa Bennett-Warner (Dorinda) and Molly Gromadzki (Gipsy). Photo by Manuel Harlan
Susannah Fielding (Mrs Sullen) Pippa Bennett-Warner (Dorinda) and Molly Gromadzki (Gipsy). Photo by Manuel Harlan

Honourable mentions also to Pearce Quigley as deadpan servant Scrub, and Jamie Beamish as ‘French’ priest Foigard, doing what must be the best comic accent(s) seen on the London stage in some time.

So – that’s the good. Now to my problems. Some of these, are to do with the performance space itself. I spent a moderate amount of time in the Olivier Theatre during the decade or so I lived in London, and I’ve always found it a cold space – it seems to be a difficult place for shows to really fly in. This tendency to coldness was exacerbated by some problems with the live broadcast (more on those later). The set, with its’ several layers, seems to make the Olivier stage feel cramped, and means there is rather too much clomping up and down stairs, and the largely manual scene changes in the first half slow down the action too much. It does improve in the second half, when they start using a truck. I guess it was designed to accommodate Farquhar’s many swift entrances and exits, and scene changes, but for me, it doesn’t quite work. I have similar feelings about the folky, Irish tinged music. I really like it, and it certainly livens things up, but I didn’t feel it fitted the play, especially as the male musicians’ costumes looked like they’d been nicked from Mumford & Sons tour wardrobe.

The whole thing also felt frequently gloomy and under-lit. This might be the effect of failing to adapt theatrical lighting sufficiently for the TV broadcast. Talking of which… I did work in TV (in news, if you’re wondering) for a long time (or at least, it felt like a long time) so I may be being too critical, but there were several instances of bad camera wobbles (the worst one in Mrs Sullen’s soliloquy ending the first half) and of cameras re-framing whilst live (a cardinal sin among the TV directors I used to work with). Perhaps, again, this is a problem with the Olivier theatre, or perhaps more cameras would solve the problem – there was also a lack of close-ups, with the tightest shot available seemingly a mid-shot. This is important, because close-ups help to create for the cinema viewer the intimacy that exists naturally if you’re actually in the theatre. Maybe this was an off night for the NT Live team, or perhaps they need to have a chat with the RSC, who seem to have got a better handle on their live broadcasts.

I seem to be ending this on a negative note, which I’m reluctant to do – mostly because I loved the cast so much. It’s a funny old thing, this reviewing business…