Harold Pinter Theatre, London, until June 18
Serious actors, when they are weighing up whether to accept a part, always look for a character who goes on what they call “a journey,” which is to say
someone who materially changes during the course of a play. One can therefore see why Jodie Comer was attracted to playing Tessa in Suzie Miller’s Prima Facie. She’s a confident young hotshot barrister at the start of
the piece, and, at the end, she’s wondering what the point of it all was.
That said, Comer is very much a television actor – notably in Killing Eve, The White Princess and Doctor Foster – and for her to choose to make her stage debut in a work in which she is out there on the boards, on her own in front of a West End audience, for an hour and a half straight through is, to put it mildly, dangerously exposing.
I’ve seen a great many big TV stars come a cropper in less demanding stage debuts, but, amazingly, this high-stakes gamble pays off handsomely for Comer. She delivers a performance of mesmerising intensity. Miller has written a great script, but it makes what would seem unreasonable demands on any actor – it doesn’t merely require a prodigious feat of memory, it means playing multiple roles, jumping on top of desks, shifting furniture around, all the while knowing where to stand and keeping the emotions under control.
Justin Martin’s production starts off slowly and slyly, with Comer playing Tessa as a kind of youthful, female Rumpole in her horsehair wig and gown, and there are some laughs to be had, even as she talks about her lucrative sideline in sexual offences work, where her male clients often see the advantage of being represented in court by a woman. She talks about having to take an inexperienced colleague aside when she asks one of these men if he actually did what he’s accused of and that very cleverly involves the audience in the joke.
Miller’s script then deftly shifts the perspective as Tessa begins an affair with a fellow barrister. When she is drunk and incapable, he rapes her and suddenly she finds herself as the victim rather than the brief.
I get to say this all too seldom these days, but Prima Facie is an important play, brilliantly acted, written and directed and with something worthwhile to say for itself.