27 May 2022
PRIMA FACIE (Harold Pinter Theatre) Review
I don’t think it’s possible to do a suitable review of this production without separating the acting from the play from the direction/staging.
I’m not overly familiar with Jodie Comer on screen, having only seen her in the first series of “Doctor Foster” (which wasn’t much of a role) and Alan Bennett’s “Talking Heads” monologue (where she was very good, but not the strongest performer by far), as the whole “Killing Eve” craze passed me by entirely. That being the case, I didn’t come to the show with any kind of expectation, stellar critics’ reviews notwithstanding.
Comer is fantastic in the role of Tessa, who we see as a barrister at the start of the play and then as a witness at the end. This is a one-woman play, but it’s not a monologue: other people in Tessa’s life are vocalised in a variety of voices and accents by Comer, who shifts smoothly yet clearly between them. The pace is impressively quick (so much so that you wonder how she manages to take a breath between the lines), but it did make me question whether that was really necessary. That said, Comer is terrific in making every word crystal clear, so that none of it turns into unpunctuated mush. There is a good range of emotion in the script, and Comer comes off extremely genuine across the board. There were a few places where I felt a bit distant from the action, but it’s hard to tell how much of it was Comer vs. the script/direction.
Suzie Miller’s play left me surprisingly unmoved, most likely because of the ending. She makes an important point (that Comer helps land with a lot of impact), but then she beats you over the head with it for a while, and, when you think it’s time to start rolling the eyes, she chews up the message and force-feeds it to you again a couple of times. It wasn’t necessary and actually made the ending worse because it completely drained me of what emotional investment I had into Tessa’s plight. There is also a little matter or Chekhov’s gun-cum-court. Obviously it’s important to establish the baseline of what Tessa does, but the minute you see the gusto with which she goes for the jugular of the witness on the stand, your little inside voice says, “surely the shoe will be on the other foot eventually”, which is exactly what happens when Tessa herself ends up in court as a witness.
There are also some inconsistencies in the play that annoyed me, doubly so because Miller herself was once a criminal defence lawyer. There is a court scene (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you) where a defence lawyer is pressing a witness about whose hands were where during the alleged incident, and the witness is all wobbly and lost and inconsistent. Surely you’d think that the prosecutor would’ve prepared the witness for this line of questioning… That whole scene plays out as if the witness wasn’t expecting any questions to this effect. Additionally, the play is full of jargon that doesn’t need to be there, and it caused my brain to switch (twice!) from concentrating on the play to trying to figure out what she’s talking about. Firstly, there’s some talk about changing employment from these chambers to those, which is fine, but several times the monetary cost of doing so is mentioned. I don’t know the finer details of barrister employment, so trying to figure out why someone would play extra to change jobs was weird. Secondly, the talks about jury being escorted out of the room so that voir dire could take place. Whilst the script goes on to explain (in a rather muddled way and long after the term is used) that it’s an in-trial hearing to determine a witness’ competency, this definition largely applies to the Commonwealth countries. In America, for example, voir dire refers to the jury questioning and selection before a trial starts. Once the term was spoken for the first time, my brain went, “wait, what?”. Miller could’ve simply scripted, without the hoity-toity vernacular, the jury being escorted out so that the witness could be questioned by the judge.
The play is directed by Justin Miller. He was an associate director for a few productions I’d seen and liked, so I was interested in checking out how this solo venture would turn out. On balance, I really enjoyed how he placed Comer into the action, her use of the set, and a really nice balance he created for the flow of the play, so that it wasn’t continuously escalating. The rain scene gave me pause though. My companion said that it added to the mood and made him feel deeper for Tessa, but I thought it was fairly gimmicky, especially since Comer, being as good as she was, would’ve certainly be able to set the right tone even without it.
The background music was a hit-and-miss for me. In a lot of places it underscored the mood incredibly well, but, in others, it was just white noise that I found borderline annoying.
On balance, my gripes with the play aside, the acting was top notch, and it was an incredibly enjoyable performance. Having seen another one-woman drama (“The Human Voice“) at the same theatre just two months ago (and having rather disliked it), it only goes to show that having a powerful script is not enough. Strong direction and top-notch acting go a long way.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £8.