Is the British court system about truth or justice? Do guilty defendants get acquitted simply because the case cannot be proved beyond reasonable doubt? Writer and former practising barrister Sir John Mortimer QC, of Rumpole of the Bailey fame, brings the courts to the stage once again in this interesting and intriguing satire.
Veteran actor Leslie Phillips heads the exemplary cast as Fred, the judge who was booted out of the criminal courts for being too understanding of defendants. He's sharing judges' lodgings with criminal court judge Keith (played by Simon Ward), a stickler for discipline and the rules, and Elspeth (Joanna Van Gyseghem), the family courts judge.
Elspeth's lover Roddy (Patrick Ryecart) turns up and blackmails Keith to keep his name out of a pending court case with the threat of talking to the tabloids over their schoolboy affair. The threat is overheard by Fred, who in turn manages to "persuade" Keith to come round to his way of thinking over his latest trial. When is it blackmail, when simply persuasion?
The trial itself takes over much of Act II, in which a 17-year-old black defendant, played by Jimmy Akingbola, stands accused of the murder of his mother's boyfriend. The evidence seems stacked against him, not least of which is a signed confession, but with Mortimer's way of weaving a story together and a supporting company of barristers and witnesses, the truth emerges in the courtroom - or does it?
Mortimer himself says that an English criminal trial is not an exercise in discovering the truth. "It's an exercise to see whether guilt can be proved beyond reasonable doubt, which is quite a different thing," he adds.
In Naked Justice, it's an interesting exercise indeed. While Act I feels a bit slow as it builds characters and scene-sets, Act II is pacy and entertaining, as well as highly amusing.
Hugh Durrant's excellent set offers us a courtroom, judges' lodgings and a bar which turns into a waiting room, interview room or lounge bar, whenever needed.
Fans of courtroom drama or series such as Cracker and Prime Suspect will see the twist at the end of the tale coming a mile off, but it doesn't take away from the overall feel of the piece. And while I wouldn't go as far as to say it would be criminal to miss this one, it's certainly worth being a witness!
- Elizabeth Ferrie (reviewed at Birmingham Repertory Theatre)