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Nicole Kidman returns to the London stage as a scientist in ‘Photograph 51'

Nicole Kidman rehearses Sept. 3 for her role as Rosalind Franklin in Anna Ziegler's new play "Photograph 51" in London.

Nicole Kidman rehearses Sept. 3 for her role as Rosalind Franklin in Anna Ziegler’s new play “Photograph 51" in London.

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Having played Virginia Woolf, Diane Arbus, Martha Gellhorn, Grace Kelly and Gertrude Bell on the big and small screens, Nicole Kidman has chosen to incarnate another real-life historical figure for her highly touted return to the stage.

The Oscar-winning actress plays Rosalind Franklin, the 20th century English scientist who made important contributions to the study of DNA, in the drama “Photograph 51,” running through late November at the Noel Coward Theatre on London’s West End.

It marks Kidman’s first return to the stage since her performance in “The Blue Room” by David Hare, which ran in London and New York in 1998.

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If the hype surrounding the “The Blue Room” focused on Kidman’s brief nude moment on stage, “Photograph 51,” by American playwright Anna Ziegler, is by comparison a much more sober affair, concentrating on Franklin’s professional achievements and frosty, competitive relationship with her colleagues.

As an X-ray crystallographer, Franklin captured the image that would eventually lead to the identification of DNA’s double-helix structure. (It also gives the play its title.) The production features the characters of James Watson and Francis Crick -- the two scientists who would eventually be credited, along with Maurice Wilkins, with discovering the structure of DNA.

“Photograph 51" was produced off-Broadway at New York’s Ensemble Studio Theater in 2010 with a different cast. The play ran in Los Angeles in 2009 at the Fountain Theatre.

The London production is staged by Michael Grandage, the former artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse whose new namesake company is producing the play on the West End.

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Grandage recently directed Kidman in the upcoming Maxwell Perkins biopic “Genius,” in which the actress plays another real-life figure -- Aline Bernstein, the American costume and set designer who had a love affair with Thomas Wolfe, one of the authors Perkins edited.

Kidman has received some of the best reviews of her career for the play. Ben Brantley of the New York Times concluded that “Kidman, who turns Franklin’s guardedness into as much a revelation as a concealment of character, is pretty close to perfection.”

The Telegraph’s critic Dominic Cavendish wrote: “By turns icily impatient and glowering, but thawing too for telling moments, Kidman brilliantly suggests an intelligent woman compacted of porcelain and steel. Being no-nonsense, she’s often funny.”

Michael Billington of the Guardian also praised Kidman, writing that the actress “conveys the ecstasy of scientific discovery: her features acquire a luminous intensity as she stares at the photograph that reveals the helix pattern. It is a fine performance in which Kidman reminds us that the scientific life can be informed by private passion.”

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Kidman is one of a few marquee names making a splash on London stages this season.

Benedict Cumberbatch is appearing to sold-out houses in “Hamlet” while Imelda Staunton has earned critical raves for her title role in the musical “Gypsy.” Ben Whishaw is starring in the unconventional “Bakkhai” at the Almeida Theatre, while Stephen Merchant recently ended his run in a revival of “The Mentalists.”

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT

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