Photograph 51 (Noel Coward Theatre)

Nicole Kidman returns to the London stage to star as unsung DNA scientist Rosalind Franklin

'Icy intelligence' - Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51
'Icy intelligence' – Nicole Kidman as Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51
© Johan Persson

Credit to director Michael Grandage for bringing Anna Ziegler's insightful play about British scientist Rosalind Franklin, whose work was central to the discovery of DNA, to London. After several productions in the States, it deserves an airing in the city where Franklin made her key breakthroughs.

Ziegler argues powerfully that Franklin was on track to make the DNA double helix discovery largely by herself, only to be beaten to it by the craftier and more competitive James Watson and Francis Crick, who went on to win the Nobel Prize. There's an implication at the play's heart that the titular photograph, taken by Franklin and surreptitiously seen by Watson, was the key that unlocked their discovery. Whether this stands up to historical scrutiny is a question for elsewhere.

The major draw is Nicole Kidman's return to the London stage as Franklin. Dressed almost permanently in a lab coat and often glued to her microscope, she succeeds at capturing the icy intelligence of a woman whose stubborn refusal to hypothesise in place of hard fact (the play alleges) meant that she wound up losing the race. As we've seen before, Kidman does buttoned-up with aplomb, and though Ziegler underdraws large aspects of Franklin's life, we certainly get enough of a sense of her work, which was driven by an almost monomaniacal commitment to detail.

But this is very much an ensemble effort, including Stephen Campbell Moore as Franklin's professionally and sexually frustrated King's College colleague Maurice Wilkins, and Will Attenborough and Edward Bennett making an entertaining double act as the thrusting Watson and Crick (special credit to Attenborough's hair stylist). Grandage directs all with his trademark precision as scenes flow from one to the next with barely a join in sight.

It's not, to be frank, in the very top rank of dramas about scientific discovery. Held up next to Complicite's A Disappearing Number or the RSC's recent Oppenheimer, Photograph 51 seems rather thin in terms of both scope and inventiveness. And on the large stage of the Noel Coward it feels – pardon the pun – somewhat overexposed, in need of a more intimate treatment (Christopher Oram's dramatic subterranean set is impressive but overbearing).

But Franklin's terminal cancer diagnosis at the pitiable age of 37 provides a deeply moving denouement that prompted me to ponder whether her modern-day successor could be in a lab somewhere right now, painstakingly working towards a cure.

Photograph 51 runs at the Noel Coward Theatre until 21 November – 25% of seats are available for £10 on the day of performance