Review: Photograph 51 at the Ensemble Theatre

Review by Jack Mitchell


‘I like the shape of things even before they have meaning.’


The big ‘what if?’ questions of life, taking the shape of regret and remorse, are common interlopers in the human conscience. Is our life’s trajectory determined by our circumstances, with coincidences and events remaining largely outside of our control? Or do we need to make the most of opportunities as they present themselves, learn to live with the results, and get on with it? Photograph 51 by Anna Ziegler approaches these questions through the historical figure Dr Rosalind Franklin, giving both perspectives airtime and ultimately suggesting that they can be held in tandem.


Franklin (Amber McMahon) was the lesser known contributor to the 1953 discovery that trivia answers will attribute to Watson and Crick: the shape of human DNA. In a male-dominated lab at King’s College London, brought to life with neutral 1950s costumes and a dark, earth-toned set by Emma Vine, Franklin finds herself struggling to have her credentials and skills respected by the other scientists in the room (particularly Maurice Wilkins, played by Garth Holcombe). A recurring refrain throughout the story is ‘What if?’ What if Franklin was born at another time? What if her gender did not restrain her from achieving the respect she deserved? What if she chose a different path? What if we made bolder choices, especially regarding those we love? These questions are translatable to anyone who has struggled with big life decisions, and give this slice of scientific history a personal, philosophical relevance.


Amber McMahon and Garth Holcombe were particularly impressive in this production as the pair at the play’s centre, getting off to a rocky start in the lab but awkwardly and endearingly finding peace in their professional partnership. McMahon embodied Franklin with unwavering determination, her manner tactfully reserved in that uniquely British way, and her cutting humour very believable in its disarming effect on the men around her. Holcombe’s portrayal of Wilkins was stubborn and stiff-upper-lipped, but bore marks of true tenderness as his head and heart fought for precedence in many moments. His comic timing and dead-pan delivery were hilarious throughout.


The action was all anchored around a central table – the workstation of the lab – which also doubled as the set-piece for other locations throughout the story. Actors not present in a scene stood around the stage’s edge and in the audience, reminding us of the close-knit community responsible for this far-reaching discovery, and of the lenses we tend to look through in our interpretation of history. The dialogue-driven scenes were broken up with some nice movement sequences, which were a little blatant at times, but ultimately served the slow cumulation of events that led to the narrative’s climax.


Notwithstanding some oversimplifications and caricatured figures in the play (perhaps necessary in a 90-minute retelling of a big moment in history), the Ensemble Theatre’s production, under the hand of Anna Ledwich, did well to accentuate the philosophical questions posed by the script, and leave the audience both better-informed and personally challenged.


Photograph 51 plays until October 8 at the Ensemble.


Images Supplied