Prima Facie at Harold Pinter Theatre
Australian writer Suzie Miller began her career practising criminal law, with specific focus on sexual assault cases. A system placing such emphasis on cross-examining the alleged victim in an endeavour to find reasonable doubt, as opposed to examining whether the accused actually did anything wrong, is something that deeply perturbed Miller. A seed was planted and she eventually swapped the legal practitioner’s peruke for the playwright’s pen. The result is Prima Facie – a one-woman show which premiered in the author’s home country back in 2019. It is now one of the most eagerly anticipated West End openings of the year, marking Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer’s stage debut.
Tessa prides herself on frequently winning cases, earning her pay by defending men accused of sexual assault. When she herself is raped by a colleague, she decides to press charges, despite knowing her chances of winning the case are slim. As the court proceedings ensue, the once headstrong barrister begins to doubt the legal system and question everything she once relied on to succeed in her career.
Miriam Buether’s set consists of towering rows of case files. At first, they suggest order and routine in Tessa’s life. As her world is forever altered, the files ascend from the stage and unrelenting rain beats down on our protagonist. It makes for a profoundly moving moment. Natasha Chivers’s use of lighting is carefully considered, but most effective when the house is illuminated during the final scenes, allowing the audience to feel they are seated in a courtroom rather than a theatre. Director Justin Martin knows when to linger on the pertinent points, pause on poignant moments and allow for the occasional laughs – but it is Comer who binds everything together.
The esteemed actor, known for her outstanding array of accents on the show that put her on the map, employs her native Liverpudlian tongue here. It pays off, inviting the audience into the world of an ambitious young woman who hasn’t been gifted the privileged upbringing of her peers. It’s a nice touch that the performer adapts and articulates her speech to be more refined when in court, only to then relax into a more natural, down-to-earth voice outside of work.
We see all of Comer’s character here as she dominates every corner of the Harold Pinter stage, clambering over oak-panelled desks to make her points in the process. The actress is seamless in her physicality and, with a tremendous amount of dialogue, scarcely comes up for air for ninety minutes, departing the stage only briefly on one occasion.
Comer has the audience in her palm from the off with a performance that showcases both her character’s assortment of emotions and the actor’s undeniable talents. With material that veers occasionally towards being clunky, it’s hard to imagine another performer carrying the show with such apparent ease. Many would be forgiven for thinking Comer was a stage veteran, rather than a first-timer.
The story is not an entirely original one and the script, though impassioned, is at times overwritten. However, with a cast and creative team of such calibre, it doesn’t seem to matter. In the wake of the #metoo movement, Prima Facie serves as a vital platform to make its point. Hopefully, a future run or even a Broadway transfer will materialise, and a wider audience is there to receive it.
Prima Facie is at Harold Pinter Theatre from 15th April until 18th June 2022. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.