Legal Fictions

Published April 17, 2008

The law is a serious business, or so anyone would think before watching this double bill of plays (The Dock Brief and Edwin) by former barrister John Mortimer. Mortimer sees the comical side of courtrooms, or, rather, the lawyers and judges which inhabit them, and in Edward Fox, who takes the lead in both halves of the production, has a lead actor who revels in the world of aging, respectable, eccentric dreamers. Matthew Amer was in the first night audience of Legal Fictions at the Savoy.

In teaming late 50s piece The Dock Brief with Edwin, written in the early 80s, director Christopher Morahan has joined two short plays about legal workers struggling to deal with hard facts of reality.

The Dock Brief concerns a barrister late in his career, Morgenhall, who rarely has a case to try but is given the chance to defend a self-confessed murderer. Confined to a dimly lit cell, the pair acts out the possible lines of defence, which always end in victory; but it is an easy victory when judge and jury are played by the convict and his legal representative.

Edwin follows a retired judge who feels the need to treat everything in life as a court case, but, no matter how he looks at the evidence, he cannot see the truth about his family life that is so clearly laid before him.

Fox has the air of dignity required to bring truth to such highly esteemed characters, yet still imbues them with the eccentricity needed to bring a smile to the face. His Morgenhall is full of bluster and bravado, worrying about the outcome of the case, but more for its effect on him than his client’s freedom. As retired judge Truscott, he ages a decade or so, slipping occasionally into an old-man mumble slightly reminiscent of a descending note being played on a cello. Though both characters are clearly flawed, in Fox’s hands they are nothing if not likeable.

Nicholas Woodeson provides ample support, first as the endearingly meek, wife-murdering Fowle, a man in awe of his legal companion and always ready to bring a wholly unhelpful touch of reality to a situation, and then as cheekier, knowing trouble-stirring neighbour Tom.

Designer Mark Bailey has produced two contrasting sets for the complementary pieces; a closed, repressive cell with minimal furniture, and an open summer English country garden with over-hanging branches, a steamed-up conservatory and a riot of colour in the flower beds.

Snippets within Mortimer’s script hint at a different time – references to capital punishment and computers being the future of the world – though in general the text is not dated. Its gentle, soothing humour tickles the funny bone like a mild summer breeze rather than with the full force of the law. em>MA