The courtroom is a tried and tested dramatic staple of stage, film and television. And while the British Crown court rarely moves at the sort of speed that screenplays would have you believe, there’s still plenty of spectacle to be had.
But as various legal dramas – most recently BBC1’s Silk by Peter Moffat – have realised, the true drama comes from the offstage moments, when the barristers are not in court and the real bunfighting can take place.
Into this world dives Learned Friends, predominantly set in an antechamber where two barristers – on opposite sides of an assault case in which a prominent football manager is in the dock – are awaiting the verdict. For this one-off performance of Ginny Davis’s play, a makeshift stage is created by cordoning off a lower corridor within London’s Central Criminal Court – more commonly known by the name it inherits from its street address, The Old Bailey.
As the opening moments of the play unfolds, it seems as if the prestige of the location is being paid for with echoing acoustics that rarely work in a production’s favour. But as the action revolves around just two women – Davis playing prosecution barrister Judith, against Sharon Baylis’s defense barrister Mandy – the duo’s exploration of some legal dilemmas comes across with clarity and not a little humour. The impression that these are two women who have been working alongside each other for many years, and who have become friends even as they have faced each other in court, comes across well.
And thus, when information comes to light that could render the whole case invalid, the potential personal consequences are as clear as the legal ones are muddy. Davis constructs a set of moral questions that offers no easy answer, with Baylis’s defence barrister in particular facing choices which could ruin either of the barristers’ careers.
Usual productions of Learned Friends, I understand, see the barristers exit their room to receive the verdict, and continue the action once they return, the consequences of Mandy’s decision playing out further. But in the Old Bailey, who could resist exploring this beautiful, historic venue further? And so, a new scene was inserted, with cast and audience promenading to Court No. 1 for the delivery of the verdict.
Even here, Mandy’s consultation with the defendant takes place out of the sight and hearing of the audience, so the bulk of the additional material takes place within a conversation between prosecution barrister Juith and Ella-Siobhan Barker’s court clerk. While it is quite comical in places, its addition also feels like the least realistic segment of the whole piece, with discussions occurring in full hearing of the jury and the public gallery.
The action returns to the original staging for its conclusion, a satisfying finale in which the true justice is done, but in which one feels for all parties. In Learned Friends, Davis has created a pair of believable characters, and produced a courtroom drama that feels more realistic than many screen presentations. The thrill of experiencing a play within the Old Bailey itself is great, but it’s nothing without a play deserving of the surroundings – and Learned Friends, a warm, witty and suspenseful work, is just that.
Learned Friends was at the Central Criminal Court on October 16. For more information including future performance dates, visit ginnydavis.com