Written by Anna Zeigler. Ensemble Theatre. 2 September – 8 October 2022.
This is nice theatre. That’s not a dig by any means. I need nice theatre in my life. Theatre that tickles at your brain and your emotions, filled with language that sings and moments that make you smile, and scoff, and frown. At times everyone is so desperate to make that theatre that will be described as “vital” and “urgent” and ends up being “insufferable” and “boring”, there is a lot to be said for a good play, well presented that tells an interesting story with charm, and Photograph 51 at Ensemble Theatre is exactly that.
At first impressions I wondered if director Anna Ledwich had decided to stage the play in an Aesop store. Designer Emma Vine’s set is filled with warm woods, subtle recessed lighting and tall, calming arches with brown medical bottles. Evoking 1950s design but also guiding our eyes to sciences loftier, almost holy, ambitions. As the play asks, does it matter who was first to make the discovery, or merely that the discovery was made at all?
So this is the world we meet Rosalind Franklin, sorry Dr Rosalind Franklin, a brilliant scientist who receives a place at Kings College to further her research. Franklin is primed for battle in a system dominated by entitled white men. As competing teams of scientists work to discover the structure of DNA, Franklin’s own demeanour and stubborn perfectionism prove to be worse enemies than the people around her. But it is her skill in X-ray crystallography that produces the ground-breaking first image of the double-helix structure – Photograph 51.
Playwright Anna Zeigler’s text is wordy, but I’m a sucker for a talky play about science. Give me Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen or Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer any day. There is a careful rhythm to the speech that has a beauty and a humour all its own. Told through the memories of the men who outlived Dr Franklin and would win the Nobel prize for the discovery, Zeigler resists the urge to frame it as merely a fight against patriarchy. The various other scientists, Maurice Wilkins, Francis Crick and James Watson are filled with a combination of guilt, pride, regret and resignation to the way history plays out and how Dr Franklin’s role was dismissed for so long. But the play posits the question – was the real problem the fact she was overlooked as a woman? Or was it that her rigorous perfectionism robbed her of the imagination to see the breakthrough right in front of her?
Amber McMahon gives Rosalind Franklin a real spark. She’s spikey and gruff, but filled with a playful charm that draws the humour of our Zeigler’s script. In a way the play isn’t actually about Franklin, it’s about the men who orbit around and eventually tell her story, and as such McMahon is often the foundation for the other more eye-catching roles, and the ensemble is pitch perfect here. The two real standouts for me were Garth Holcombe’s Maurice Wilkins, Franklin’s scientific partner, the walking embodiment of Kings College’s establishment ways and Toby Blome’s ambitious and youthful James Watson, who would push the ethical boundaries to be first.
Holcombe makes Wilkins both the butt of every joke and a sympathetic, high minded, individual. He plays the layers of emotion behind the awkward Britishness with an assured hand. I was lucky enough to be seated near the front and could see every flicker cross his face. Meanwhile Blome’s Watson is an explosion of hair and avarice. The intensity and physicality of his ambition is one of the things that stops Photograph 51 from drowning under its own weight.
Photograph 51 isn’t challenging or particularly insightful or speaking volumes to our current age so don’t come looking for that. It is quite simply a really good night at the theatre. A strong script, elegantly staged by craftspeople doing their jobs flawlessly, all in around 90 minutes. And that is frankly the refreshing piece of theatre I needed to see right now.
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