Writer: Suzie Miller
Director: Justin Martin
If Jodie Comer was feeling nervous about making her anticipated West End debut in the UK premiere of Suzie Miller’s Prima Facie, there is absolutely no evidence of it on stage. With a body of hugely acclaimed screen work, Comer is an actor now expected to produce fireworks every time she slips into character and, with no other cast members to rely on, her performance at the Harold Pinter Theatre does just that with an extraordinary, devastating and uplifting solo tour de force that will provoke instantaneous standing ovations every night of the run.
Criminal defence barrister Tessa is at the top of her game, making arguments, ensnaring witnesses and winning cases with assurance, a shark who uses the law without mercy particularly in sexual assault cases. But when a night of casual sex with a colleague turns nasty, Tessa finds herself on the other side of the bar, forced to navigate the ambiguities of proof, morality and the limits of the very law she has always relied on.
Miller’s play is an outstanding piece of theatre that has a phenomenal impact over an unbroken 100-minutes. Taking a mixed chronology approach, Prima Facie has an overarching narrative that takes Tessa from empowered lawyer to voiceless victim while cutting back in time to explore the character’s working-class origins, her undergraduate training at Cambridge and, crucially, the aftermath of her attack at the police station, forensic assessment centre and return to work.
Miller deliberately structures the play like a woman giving evidence on trial, forced to recall the events of the night in question, remembering the detail and the retraumatising effect of explaining it to the audience just as she must later recount her rape in court. Miller’s point is that the legal process of assembling and packaging evidence in sexual assault cases is all wrong, that challenging the victim’s (as Tessa describes herself) testimony while the accused remains silent fails to understand the way trauma is processed and remembered. The play builds to a character outburst that has a polemic style but feels dramatically right, a plea to the audience and society to make a change.
Along the way, Miller’s writing has quite the punch, feeling the agony that Tessa experiences in her powerlessness, the waves of determination to fight back that are cut through with pain and Tessa’s knowledge that conviction is almost impossible. The storytelling is so vivid, breathlessly fast as it moves between scenarios, locations, time periods, comedy and despair while creating such a deep pathos for Tessa that at several points you may find yourself weeping for her and for the frustration and hopelessness of the system.
Comer’s performance is just so wonderful, capturing the comedic tones in the early scenes presenting the cocky, all-conquering female barrister who is a little too comfortable in herself and what she does. Comer too seems entirely at ease on stage, vividly creating the locations and people within this fast-paced story as she takes the audience with her in the move between direct narrative, re-enactment and mimicry.
When the change comes, it is sudden but entirely realistic. The world instantly falls away beneath Tessa’s feet and as the legal process steals her agency and her voice, Comer is heartbreaking, finding the waves of shame and guilt, the desire to fight back and run away all contending across her characterisation. It is such a compelling, meaningful performance in an important play and a memorable debut.
Prima Facie comes with several trigger warnings that many will find deeply affecting and upsetting, but it is also important for theatre to challenge, provoke and advocate for urgent change. Justin Miller’s direction is extremely pacey, inventively using Miriam Buether’s set to move around the space and create the illusion of people, places and institutions crowding in on the protagonist. Lined with files and folders that disappear as Tessa crosses into the legal process, the final moments of the play powerfully return the humanity to those files and all the stories just like Tessa’s.
Runs until 18 June 2022