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Nicole Kidman is upstaged by everyone - even the set: Photograph 51 at the Noel Coward reviewed

Plus: a new show about education at the Old Vic that makes you want to sack the teaching profession

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

Photograph 51

Noel Coward, until 21 November

Future Conditional

Old Vic, until 3 October

Michael Grandage’s latest show is about an old snap. Geneticists regard the X-ray of the hydrated ‘B’ form of DNA as one of the loveliest images ever captured. To laymen it looks like some woodlice drowning in yesterday’s porridge. The pic was taken in 1951 by the British biochemist Dr Rosalind Franklin but she failed to realise its significance. When James Watson passed through her lab he took one glimpse and instantly twigged that it revealed the helical structure of DNA. With his pal Francis Crick he built the famous double-helix model which bagged them the Nobel Prize. Dr Franklin (played by Nicole Kidman) won nothing.

We know all this in advance, of course, so the play lacks any suspense. The only uncertainly surrounds the manner and scale of Dr Franklin’s defeat. A real drama needs juicier ingredients than these. Rosalind Franklin is an exceptionally icy customer, a lonely, buttoned-up little brainbox who hasn’t a friend, a lover, or even a pet dormouse to brighten her life. The cheeriest account of her personality comes from a colleague. ‘She’s unspeakably difficult.’ At times, so is the show. Striding boffins march in and out spouting jargon. ‘There’s not a chance I’ll go back to haemoglobin diffraction patterns.’ It’s hard to imagine what induced Ms Kidman to ascend this pitiless glacier. Her eerily symmetrical face is absorbing to look at but for a limited time. It’s not an ideal conduit for the staple material of theatre, namely suffering: suffering endured, suffering overcome. Dr Franklin’s emotional life is locked away behind Ms Kidman’s blank, steely gaze. Her millions of fans who regard her as a sex goddess will be dismayed to see her slender figure sheathed in a nunnish pinny throughout. And her lovely cascades of blonde hair have been dyed beige and pinned against her skull like a dead beehive. Her accent, to be generous, is an intriguing mixture of climes and influences. Sometimes she’s too percussively British, sometimes rather twangingly Australian. I heard a chap in the interval likening her to ‘Stephen Hawking doing Richie Benaud’.

The real story here isn’t Franklin’s minor role but the triumph of Watson and Crick. Watson appears as a bumbling young American with mad hair and an amusing fear of women. Crick is a wry, uxorious charmer who loves to throw parties at his Cambridge home. They’re entirely mismatched and the gulf separating their characters makes their double act believable and very funny. It’s like an alliance between a clever older boy and an adorable prank-playing toddler. I suspect that Edward Bennett (Crick) and Will Attenborough (Watson) will ham it up more and more as the run proceeds. And this may irk Ms Kidman, who is already playing third fiddle here. Or fourth, if you include the set, which is a glorious confection of ghostly greys and blues. It suggests a bombed-out catacomb loured over by soaring Georgian façades pockmarked with shrapnel. It may have little connection with the script but it adds visual magnificence to a show that might otherwise feel like a radio play. Or a read-through of a radio play.

The Old Vic’s new show about education isn’t a drama but a pageant that invites us to admire various aspects of our school system and to conclude that things are damn near perfect. We watch posh mums gossiping and bickering outside a playground. We see secondary kids being taught by a chirpy Welshman who, like all Welshmen, supports Arsenal. We marvel as Whitehall bureaucrats sit in a circle and try to raise national standards by eating biscuits and writing abstract nouns on a mood-board.

Nothing connects these scenes. There’s no storyline or central character. The writer, Tamsin Oglesby, has an obsession with pedigree that would have astounded Barbara Cartland. And she seems convinced that learned social attitudes are insurmountable. In Whitehall two specialists clash over privilege. One is a thuggish Glaswegian whose bloodless face simmers with violence. The other is a lisping Etonian ponce with angelic curls and a boundless sense of entitlement. At the schoolgates the posh mums are joined by a fag-puffing Essex girl in a boob tube who drinks lager for breakfast and yells gobby insults at her offspring. On St George’s Day she sluts herself up in red, white and blue. She may be intended as a figure of fun but when satire fails to amuse it risks dwindling into prejudice. The show reaches its low point when the affable Taffy (Rob Brydon) holds a discussion centring on the sex drive and its classification as a function of the soul or the body.

Blimey. If teachers are being asked to promote this sort of bilge in school they deserve more than 16 weeks off a year. Give them all 52.

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