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I found this story of scientist Rosalind Franklin rather sad – the lack of recognition of her contribution to DNA science, her unfulfilled personal life and her untimely death are all brought out in Anna Ziegler’s lucid biographical drama. The play suggests the lack of recognition is a combination of sexism, her reluctance to promote herself and her work and a more cautious approach to science. It seems the Cambridge DNA team of Watson and Crick, with the collusion of her London colleague Wilkins, though fully aware of her contribution, fail to acknowledge it publicly and to include her in their Nobel Prize-winning work – which is a great tragedy in itself.

We first meet Franklin when she returns to the UK from France to work at King’s College with Maurice Wilkins. She’s cold, brittle and determined, and she’s immediately faced with the challenge of being a woman in what was still a man’s world in the early 50’s. Wilkins changes her work and status before she’s even begun and snubs her on day one to lunch in the men-only dining room. Her ground-breaking photographic techniques prove crucial to the discovery of DNA but it’s not given recognition, most probably intentionally. Just as those that are recognised are revelling in their Nobel glory, Franklin is dying of tumours which may even have been caused by her work.

Christopher Oram has created an enormous replica of Kings College, above and below ground (where their laboratories were). It’s impressive, and reflects the coldness of the scientific environment and the people and relationships played out within it. Michael Grandage’s staging is rather conservative, with actors stepping forward to narrate parts of the story that are not enacted. The costumes are as grey as the set and with 50’s behavioural restraint and scientific seriousness, the overall feel is clinical.

Nicole Kidman is completely believable in this role, and you soon forget you’re in the presence of a modern film icon. I realised how much she invested in the role at the curtain call when she changed before your eyes from the character into the actress, and this was far from instant. She has five fine performances around her, and makes no attempt to scene steal or attention grab. Stephen Campbell Moore is outstanding as the complex Wilkins, with hints of guilt and longing. Edward Bennet and Will Attenborough are great together as the livelier Cambridge pair of Crick and young American Watson respectively. Patrick Kennedy plays another American scientist Don Caspar with child-like enthusiasm, in awe of Franklin, showing his less scientific feelings for her more overtly than Wilkins. Joshua Silver is very good too as her assistant Gosling, sometimes caught between loyalty to her and their boss.

An interesting story that unfolds grippingly over just 95 minutes. The production is as restrained as the characters, so what might seem conservative may perhaps be a true reflection of this period and this world. I still haven’t forgiven myself for choosing not to see Kidman in La Ronde at the Donmar seventeen years ago now, but this is some recompense. She proves to be a fine stage actress.

 

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