Prima Facie with Jodie Comer review – the Killing Eve star makes her West End debut
Suzie Miller's solo show comes to London
What an astonishing actress Jodie Comer is! This 100-minute monologue marks her West End debut – and looking at her CV, her previous stage work anywhere doesn't amount to much more than some youth drama.
Yet the Killing Eve star strides out onto the stage of the Harold Pinter Theatre and utterly owns it, holding the audience in the grip of her ever-tightening hand. She even risks a little Villanelle side-eye at the start but by the close, her transformative storytelling is so powerful that you forget she is anything but the woman she is playing.
That woman is Tessa, a clever and ambitious criminal barrister, conscious that only one in three of her law degree peers will succeed in forging a career, and utterly determined she will rise to the top. Surrounded by files and heavy wooden furniture, popping her barrister's wig on her head, she brags about her expertise in manipulating the system in sexual assault cases, defending the men accused by undermining the word of their accusers.
Her eyes gleam with pleasure at her skill. She knows these men might be guilty, but she tells herself and us, that if a man escapes justice it's because the prosecution didn't do their job. The playwright Suzie Miller, has been a criminal defence lawyer in her native Australia and it's clear from the detail of her writing, how deeply she understands the legal games people play.
But then Tessa finds herself on the other side of an argument: a consensual date with a work colleague turns into rape. She withdraws consent, but he doesn't listen. In an instant, everything she thought she knew about herself is destroyed. Her life is suddenly in the hands of people over whom she has no control, her words and actions twisted and misinterpreted by a system that favours men. Yet she is determined to fight back.
Comer charts all this with a precision that is uncanny. She has the ability to communicate many conflicting emotions simultaneously: she is funny when she is vomiting down a loo, but also utterly vulnerable and terrified; when she describes her mother she is both loving and ashamed. Each thought and emotion registers not only in her face, but in her body. She seems to imprint things onto herself before speaking. By the end of the play, she doesn't even look like the woman who began it.
She is supported by a powerful production, directed by Justin Martin with just the right sense of pace and of light and shade. Every ingredient of the show is beautifully conceived. Miriam Buether (who seems to be the busiest designer in London at the moment) contributes a set that constantly modulates into something different, making its points both literally and metaphorically under Natasha Chivers' lights, with great flashes of white that divide scenes. Ben and Max Ringham provide a soundtrack that heightens both the action and the emotion.
Prima Facie isn't the most subtle piece of writing, and it is possibly over-emphatic towards its close, becoming polemic rather than drama. Yet it is hard to argue with its fury when the facts that underpin its arguments are incontestable. Perhaps someone needs to get angry when one in three women will be subjected to some form of sexual assault in their lifetime and only 1.3 per cent of rapes are ever prosecuted.
With Comer as its protagonist, blazing away, it is impossible to avert your gaze. She brings its arguments to forceful life and in the process creates an unforgettable moment of theatre.