First Nighter: Nicole Kidman in "Photograph 51" and Other London Recommendations

LONDON--By now it's well known to theatergoers that Nicole Kidman is back on stage and in Anna Ziegler's Photograph 51 after a 17-year lapse. She's returned in a piece noticeably different from her last offering, The Blue Room, where she gained beaucoup publicity for appearing for a few brief seconds, and in dim lighting, totally undressed.

Here she's severely garbed, at the Noel Coward, as the sexually repressed--possibly even Asperger's Syndrome afflicted--chemist and crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, whose early 1950's work in London's King's College laboratories led spectacularly to the discovery of the DNA double helix.

Under Michael Grandage's careful direction for his Michael Grandage Company and on Christopher Oram's imposingly gloomy set, Kidman is first-rate as a woman so single-minded about her scientific exploration that she's unable to establish anything other than strict working relationships with others, specifically with teammate Maurice Wilkins (Stephen Campbell Moore), who develops affection for her she can't begin to reciprocate.

Only slowly does Franklin warm to a recent graduate student Don Casper (Patrick Kennedy), who speaks to her about his feel for scientific study on terms to which she relates. She further reveals a more human side when diagnosed with a terminal medical condition, and Kidman becomes increasingly moving as Rosalind realizes she won't be recognized for her contributions in a world where men are the ones allowed to receive credit.

In this realm, of course, it's wild-haired James Watson (Will Attenborough) and Francis Crick (Edward Bennett), who make the double helix connection that Franklin hadn't yet spotted. And Ziegler tells the story economically by having each of the participants--including PhD student Ray Gosling (Joshua Silver)--step forward to narrate the development.

Ziegler draws attention rather smoothly to several issues, anti-Semitism in science circles (Franklin was Jewish) and, of course, the second-class status of women. She cleverly underlines Franklin as the overlooked member of the Double Helix team by including a conversation (fictionalized, it certainly seems) between Franklin and Wilkins about a Winter's Tale production containing a performance by an actress whose name they can't recall. "She didn't stand out," Franklin says at one crucial point, "and that's that."
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Actress Emma (Denise Gough giving nothing less than a brilliant performance) falls apart from excessive drinking and drugging during a performance of Anton Chekhov's play The Seagull. Calling herself Nina, in ironic reference to the Chekhov role, she checks into a rehab center where she proceeds to defy her doctor and therapist (Barbara Marten in both parts) as well as the members of the group in which she's meant to find recovery.

That's the first time she checks in. The second time she arrives in Duncan Macmillan's unrelenting People Places Things--a harrowing drama at the National's Dorfman that does include the occasionally surprising funny line--she makes better progress. Guided by new friend Mark (Nathaniel Martello-White), she "graduates" to return to living with her mother (Marten) and father (Kevin McMonagle, who also plays a patient gone mad).

The scene during which she confronts her parents is perhaps Macmillan's most effective--after a series of extremely effective sequences, directed by Jeremy Herrin for his Headlong company. Macmillan lets no one off the hook in a play that makes a case for the undeniable benefits of rehab, although--on Bunny Christie's institutionally white-tiled set (with the audience on both sides) he may be overlooking a crucial aspect of treatment.

It's clear that Emma, who eventually admits to being not Nina but Sarah (that, too, may be untrue), is clinically depressed. She never receives individual attention for depression, however, even though it seems called for beyond group involvement. The lapse is eventually minor in a work where Emma/Nina/Sarah's discontent is further rubbed in by James Farncombe's combustible lighting and Tom Gibbons's aggressive sound.
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When Timberlake Wertenbaker wrote Our Country's Good, now revived in the National's Olivier under Nadia Fall's capable direction, she wanted to hit her fellow Englishmen and Englishwomen where they lived--and where some of their prisoners had been sent to live in the 18th century: Australia. She succeeded unquestionably.

Thinking about the hard, not to say cruel, life to which those thousands had been consigned--many for extremely minor offenses--she determined to make a case for humane rehabilitation through the arts. (That case still needs to be made today, which is what makes Our Country's Good additionally cogent for contemporary audiences.)

In the first act, she contends with the presentation of, and the opposition to, encouraging inmates to appear in a play. In the second act, the 1789 controversial Sydney entertainment having been reluctantly approved, she follows the rehearsal period right through to the first performance. That episode hardly ran smoothly, which is what makes for the dramatic excitement.

On Peter McIntosh's somewhat abstract set--a bifurcated central circle that rises and falls--the troupe of players, many of them as the 18th-century players--gives full life to the work. Seen first and then repeatedly, Gary Wood appears as The Aborigine, a kinetic emblem of the period agitation.
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What transpires in the 105-minute Pomona, at the National, may not be immediately clear--or even eventually--but the action is definitely chilling fun.

It's Alistair McDowall's nifty notion, which is then bracingly staged by Ned Bennett, to put on stage (and in the round) something the predominantly young audience attracted to it recognize as similar to a game of Snakes and Ladders and other RPGs (role-playing games).

Ollie (Nadia Clifton) is looking for her missing sister--if indeed she even has a missing sister--in a sinister locale where sinister people keep asking her if she's ever been to what must be an even more sinister locale called Pomona.

In the meantime she finds lodgings through Fay (Rebecca Humphries), an unhappy prostitute, whom a couple of uncertain hired killers (Sam Swann, Sean Rigby) are after. Then there's Keaton (Sarah Middleton), who might be the missing sister and from time to time wears a horrifying rubber mask designed by Isa Shaw-Abulafia.

There's not much more to know, other than it's all fast and furious, thanks in part to movement director Polly Bennett. Also know that Guy Rhys and Rochenda Sandall figure in to scarifying effect. The best advice on Pomona: Just go with it.