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'Prima Facie' review — Jodie Comer is astonishing in this urgent legal drama

Marianka Swain

Marianka Swain

April 28, 2022 08:41

She shot to fame playing psychopathic assassin Villanelle in Killing Eve, but Jodie Comer’s West End debut in Suzie Miller’s one-woman show Prima Facie is closer to her recent turn as a care home worker in Help. Once again she embodies an urgent real-life issue, this time an indefensibly broken legal system, and, in an astonishing tour-de-force performance, Comer commits, body and soul, to laying bare the human cost.

When we first meet her character Tessa Ensler, she’s a hotshot barrister, a “thoroughbred”, who is on an impressive winning streak. With mischievous glee, she leaps on the desk and gives us a breathless play-by-play of her latest victory – how she lulled a cocky witness into a false sense of security, then pounced. She loves this sense of power, of respect from her peers, and she loves playing the game.

But Tessa, a working-class Liverpudlian who fought her way to the top, also has great respect for the legal system. She genuinely believes that defence lawyers like herself provide a human right, and that every case should be thoroughly tested, even the sexual assault cases that she’s often put on. Besides, it’s not up to her to go after the “truth”, but to present the legal truth – the best version of her client’s story, which may then provide reasonable doubt for the jury.

That unwavering belief, and a certain amount of arrogance (Comer provides a nonchalant swagger), is shattered when Tessa becomes the victim of sexual assault. As she cross-examines herself, she realises how badly it would play in court: her attacker was someone she knew and had invited into her home, they’d been drinking, they’d been intimate before, and, in her distressed state, she has destroyed evidence and is hazy on some details.

Seeing the legal system from the other side is a violent wake-up call, and it’s here that Australian playwright Miller – a former criminal lawyer – switches to pure polemic. It’s a poor dramatic choice, but Comer makes it work by sheer force of will. She keeps Tessa’s psychological state at the forefront while Miller goes through the mechanics: the fact that you might well deal with an insensitive male police officer; that the CPS decides whether or not to bring a case to court, not the victim; the interminably long delays; and how it’s close to impossible to get a conviction.

The latter is a result of the total mismatch between the lived experience of (mainly) female victims, and a coldly logical male-defined legal system. But recalling a horrendously traumatic experience is in itself a trauma, and is highly unlikely to fit into neat, factual boxes. So why do we put the victim on trial, jumping on any possible inconsistency in their brave testimony, instead of the accused?

Throughout this 100-minute piece, even in its weaker moments, Comer is absolutely riveting. She uses her shape-shifting talents to great effect, sketching in numerous other characters – from her posh colleagues to her abrasive mum and combative brother. She also gives Tessa a vivid emotional journey. To begin with she’s funny, fast-talking and bold, dancing badly in a club or diving into a new case with intellectual zeal.

In fact, her assault comes right after a brilliant bit of physical comedy, as she vomits awkwardly into the loo, and it’s a waking nightmare that we feel every moment of as she’s trapped, frozen. She then turns inwards, using that same brilliant mind to torture herself, while shrivelling up physically. This isn’t just a date gone wrong. She is forever scarred by it.

Justin Martin’s production features a few showy tricks, like a dramatic downpour, but works best as a subtle framing for the extraordinary Comer. Miriam Buether’s set dwarfs her with towering stacks of files and provides versatile wooden furniture that takes us from Tessa’s office to court and elsewhere. Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s compositions add panic-inducing pounding beats.

If the play itself remains flawed, Comer should be nonetheless be commended for putting her star power behind Miller’s campaign. The production is teaming up with charity The Schools Consent Project, and with the current record delays in bringing rape cases to court – and statistics showing one in three women will experience sexual assault, but only 1.3% of rapes are prosecuted – some clunky writing is forgivable if it keeps the issue centre stage.

Besides, Comer herself makes this unmissable viewing. It's the unveiling of a serious, and seriously exciting, stage talent.

Prima Facie is at the Harold Pinter Theatre to 18 June.

Photo credit: Jodie Comer (Photo by Helen Murray)

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