Legal Fictions

A double bill of The Dock Brief and Edwin
By John Mortimer
A Theatre Royal Bath production Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, and touring

Edward Fox in "Edwin"

This double bill of The Dock Brief and Edwin is the perfect vehicle for Edward Fox, first as a barrister who hasn’t had a case for fifty years and then, in the second play, as a retired judge who, with nothing to occupy his mind, indulges in the eccentricities of ‘trying’ the dog for burying his bone in the flowerbed, or a wasp for landing on his toast and marmalade – each time beginning his deliberations with “I put it to you, members of the jury” with Fox’s slow and deliberate, lugubriously delivered drawl.

The Dock Brief was written before legal aid was available and refers to the practise of appointing a lawyer to take a case without a fee when the defendant was unable to pay. Morgenhall is delighted to have been chosen, hoping that this case will make his name at last and briefs will come flooding in. He is to defend Fowle against the charge of killing his wife, a forlorn hope as the sin was committed because she was too cheerful and loyally refused to run away with the lodger - also Fowle cheerfully admits his guilt. Nothing daunted, Morgenhall translates this as “regulating his domestic affairs”, and goes into flights of fantasy when he will astound the court with his rhetoric and his client will be acquitted.

Actors and barristers have a lot in common, as Mortimer knows well, having been a member of the legal profession himself for many years. They are forever giving a performance, and Morgenhall savours the performance he will give as he insists on rehearsing it in Fowle’s grim and forbidding prison cell (an excellent overpoweringly high-walled set by Mark Bailey). Nicholas Woodeson’s Fowle goes along with the game, taking the parts of judge, defendant and jury, and helpfully doing his best to ensure his lawyer appears in the best possible light.

Mortimer is, of course, best known for the well-loved Rumpole of the Bailey who began life in 1975 and is still going strong, the cases in his thirty year career keeping well up to date with contemporary issues. The Dock Brief, however, was written as a radio drama in 1957 and, despite the witty and humorous script and the exceptionally brilliant performances, it did seem a little dated and long drawn out, with the conclusion not unexpected. The later play Edwin, on the other hand, kept me totally engrossed and laughing throughout, with the old retired judge desperate to convict someone of something, be it wasp or dog. Failing any satisfaction on those counts, he turns his attention to long-time neighbour Tom, and accuses him of “rogering” his wife in the conservatory many years ago. The title refers to the son, Edwin, who is expected for lunch, returning home from California after many years – but whose son is it? Each argues the case for fathering the boy – until he arrives. He turns out to be a crashing bore – vegetarian, won’t touch alcohol, concerned about his cholesterol, and working with computers - and they immediately reverse their arguments and refute paternity. The only thing to do is to confront the judge’s wife Margaret and have it out with her. The final scene belongs to a splendid Polly Adams as she strings them along without actually giving a definite answer. A keen gardener, she won’t leave her beloved plants to go and live with her son in California – but is there another reason that she wants to stay put?

Superb and memorable performances all round (Fox and Woodeson of course taking the parts of judge and neighbour), coupled with an exceeding funny and witty script, make this a very enjoyable evening, and one very much appreciated by the Guildford audience.

This production was also reviewed by Robert Tanitch at Richmond and by Rivka Jacobson at the Savoy Theatre

Reviewer: Sheila Connor

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