No-one does courtroom dramas like John Mortimer, and Naked Justice at the West Yorkshire Playhouse is a Mortimer courtroom drama par excellence. The question is, is that enough? In many ways, it is: it's a rattling good yarn told highly entertainingly. In many others, it's a period piece even on its première.
In some respects, this is simply Rumpole Of The Bench, with the central trio of characters just being Rumpole and a couple of his colleagues aged a few years and refashioned as judges on the Northern Circuit: sardonic but kindly family judge Elspeth (Anna Carteret) is an older Phyllida Trant ("the Portia of our chambers"), high-profile but humourless martinet Keith (Nicholas Jones, whose right eye was created for irritable twitching) is Claude Erskine-Brown, and "Uncle Fred", the old buffer no longer allowed to preside over criminal cases because of his dangerous liberalism but still sharper than he appears, is the venerable Horace himself – slimmer, of course, and more Leslie Phillips than Leo McKern. The latter is hardly surprising, since he is played by Leslie Phillips, and in much the way that Phillips seems to play most roles these days, i.e. as a caricature of Leslie Phillips. He, like Mortimer, is consummate at what he does (aside from the occasional misty patch as regards his lines), but endearing though it is, it adds to the sensation that this is a play out of time.
The plot does not just run on rails, but does so more punctually than most current inter-city services. It is obvious, when a dozing Uncle Fred is deposited behind the sofa by Mortimer, that he is going to overhear some crucial information exchanged in supposed confidence, and likewise that he will use it to his nobly intended ends. Nor is it particularly surprising when there is a Witness For The Prosecution-style twist. The courtroom scenes proper are naturally of high calibre, with a handful of classic anecdotes worked in and some fine genteel verbal fencing (having recently experienced a criminal trial for the first time myself, as a witness, I can state that even the most minor, prosaic case can provoke counsel to extremes of melodrama); Geraldine Alexander makes an impressively flinty defender.
Overall Naked Justice is, as Stoppard's Inspector Hound critics would say, "derivative, of course, but quite sound." Yet there is a rich irony here: John Mortimer is chairman of the Royal Court Theatre, yet he writes as if all the Court's achievements in the last fifty years of challenging comfortable bourgeois theatrical expectations had never happened.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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