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Review Round-up: Fox’s Old-Fashioned Fictions

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John Mortimer’s double bill of law based plays, collectively entitled Legal Fictions and starring Edward Fox, opened at the West End’s Savoy Theatre last night (28 February, previews from 21 February).

Before becoming one of Britain’s most prolific writers, John Mortimer spent nearly 40 years as a successful barrister. Mortimer is best known to British audiences for his BBC television series Rumpole of the Bailey, which generated a series of spin-offs from novels to radio programmes.

The first play of the double bill, entitled The Dock Brief, sees Fox take on the role of an incompetent barrister who is asked to represent a man who confesses to having killed his wife. Courtroom chaos ensues as their elaborate and theatrical defence begins to fall apart. The second play, Edwin, follows a retired High Court Judge as he attempts to give up the habit of holding imaginary court trials in his mind and turns his attentions to his wife’s mysterious friendship with a next door neighbour.

Fox is joined in the cast by Nicholas Woodeson and Polly Adams. Both plays are directed by Christopher Morahan and designed by Mark Bailey.

Critics agreed that this “elegantly constructed piece” was “delightfully old-fashioned”, but disagreed on whether that was a good or a bad thing. With regards to leading man Edward Fox, while all agreed that “technically, this is a brilliant performance”, some regarded the actor as a “social relic” who gave “off the whiff of the museum”. On the other hand, others were full of praise for Fox’s “great comic talents” and had nothing but admiration for his “potty planet of otherworldliness”. There were also good mentions for the “earthbound, highly effective performances of Woodeson and Adams” and for Christopher Morahan’s direction.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “It’s true that neither piece, in which Edward Fox plays first a failed barrister and then a retired High Court judge, comes at you with the buttonholing intensity of Sarah Kane or Mark Ravenhill. But in their own way, they stand for decency, fair play and a largeness of spirit that characterise their author in his lifelong defence of free speech. Designer Mark Bailey provides Christopher Morahan’s elegant production with a theatricality essential to plays which started out as radio drama … Fox plays Morgenhall as a tragic eccentric who failed in love just as he fails in his first-ever ‘dock brief’ after waiting years to be summoned. His Truscott, dapper and spry in a brown trilby and cardigan, is a social relic with an unshakeable belief in his own place in the world. Watching Fox is like watching an alien comedian of the old school, AE Matthews, perhaps, or Alistair Sim. His vowels are strangulated almost to the point of incomprehension, his jaw clamped rigid like a man whose dentist has left a full set of implements in situ, his gestures despatched with airy ambiguity. This cranky carapace flatters to deceive, however, for Fox is a master of timing and an actor of sudden, touching sensitivity. The earthbound, highly effective performances of Woodeson and Adams are satellites to his potty planet of otherworldliness from which he radiates a charm as weird as it is strangely moving. You may never see this type of acting again.”
    • Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard (three stars)– “The problem with national treasures is that they can start to give off the whiff of the museum. So it proves here, as Edward Fox throws himself with crusty gusto into a pair of John Mortimer legal comedies that have not aged well. The Dock Brief and Edwin are elegant, witty works but so laboriously pleased with themselves and their observations on the stagy nature of the law that they put under severe strain the innate affection one feels for both writer and actor … Both are plays that draw thin, blithe humour from actually rather awful situations. The assumptions about class in the first play are almost as discomfiting today as the assumptions about women in the second. Then there's Fox. While Woodeson casually displays his versatility in two very different roles, Fox is all magnificent mannerism. His voice seems to have atrophied into a parody of upper-class enunciation, half-clipped, half-drawl. His body language, too, from arched eyebrows to stiffly wagging fingers, has become a masterclass in condescension. He goes at his own slow, sweet pace. If Disneyland wanted to construct an animatronic figure of a wry, wise old bird, they should study Fox. Technically, this is a brilliant performance; but it's a star turn that constantly draws attention to itself.”
    • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (three stars)- “John Mortimer once said that if you want a day job to help with your writing, you can’t do better than the law. He turned his own legal career to advantage with Rumpole of the Bailey, and the law is also the theme of this double bill, a vehicle for the great comic talents of Edward Fox … Fox, no stranger to a fruity vowel, pulls out his most elongated ones – ‘yairxcellent!’ – to play a man puffed up with the over-confidence of a classical education but too dim to find his own client in a locked dungeon. It’s a magnificent, cuff-shaking performance which manages to invoke sympathy for the amoral, patronising ‘bairrister’ … While the earlier play has a poignant edge as well as a clearly directed satirical barb, the second one drags, resting on a judicial caricature without many surprises beneath its wig. Fox, never offstage, throws himself into both parts with enormous gusto, but the decision to perform these two longish pieces together places a heavy burden on him. However well he differentiates the characters, the joke of his strangulated accent is bound to wear thin.”
    • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars)– “The law and theatre have a lot in common: both elaborate rituals involving fantasy and dressing-up. But while this wittily humane John Mortimer double bill, comprising The Dock Brief and Edwin, makes a good deal of the connection, the chief fascination lies in watching Edward Fox: one of the last great eccentrics of English acting who, I feel, should be stuffed and preserved for posterity. Eccentricity, as Ralph Richardson and Michael Hordern proved, depends on ingrained mannerisms with which Mr Fox is handsomely supplied … In both plays, adroitly directed by Christopher Morahan, Nicholas Woodeson provides a valuable foil to his partner's quirky individualism: his baggy-trousered murderer in the first play and his bow-tied potter in the second both help to feed the main character's illusions. But the chief pleasure of these quietly charming plays lies in appreciating the artful Fox and in realising that acting is a profession very like the law: one in which old habits, and practised mannerisms, die hard.”
    • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - "Edwin is set in a beautiful English garden and stars Edward Fox as Sir Fennimore Truscott, a retired old judge who, in the absence of real trials, wants to establish whether, years ago, his friend and neighbour Thomas Marjoriebanks ‘did feloniously and unlawfully roger Lady Margaret Truscott’ … This is a delightfully old-fashioned and gentle English comedy of the upper-middle class, rejoicing in eccentricity but with an undertow of almost Chekhovian sadness. And Fox is in his absolute element as the old judge, with his drawling patrician vowels, hooded eyelids, and an expression of pursed-lip displeasure that suggests he has just drained a glass not of excellent claret but of neat malt vinegar. Fox is in equally fine form as Morgenhall, the perpetually unemployed barrister in The Dock Brief who hangs about the Old Bailey day after day in the hope of picking up work from an unrepresented prisoner … Woodeson is the perfect foil as the woebegone south London seed-seller who murdered his insufferably cheerful wife because she didn't run off with the lodger. Christopher Morahan's production of this welcome double bill memorably captures Mortimer's special blend of wit, humanity and nostalgic English melancholy and proves a real treat.”

      - by Kate Jackson

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