The TheatreguideLondon Review
The main attraction of this double bill of 50-year-old radio and television plays by John Mortimer (of Rumpole fame) is the opportunity to spend a couple of hours in the always pleasurable company of star Edward Fox.
Fox is one of those actors I could happily watch doing anything, so great is his charm and so expert his effortless-seeming mastery. His way with a line, especially a sly and witty one, is a delight to behold, as he just quietly floats it out there, waiting patiently for us to catch up with it.
And even though he is badly miscast in one of his roles here, Fox in a wrong role is more fun than almost anyone else in a right one, and Fox in a role that fits him (as he has in the second play) is an unmitigated joy.
The first of the two plays, 'The Dock Brief', has Nicholas Woodeson playing a poor guy who killed his wife because he couldn't take her relentless cheeriness, and now meets his court-appointed barrister (Fox), who turns out to be an even bigger loser who has never had a client.
The two build up their confidence by planning and acting out the brilliant courtroom strategies that will win the case, only to have a double plot twist first douse and then rekindle their optimism.
The central joke is the way the two men get caught up in their fantasy role-playing. But, while Woodeson does generate a few chuckles when his character gets into the spirit of the thing and starts ad libbing, Fox's whole style is essentially wrong for the role, missing the see-sawing of excitement and despair.
He's just too laid-back for the play to generate the farcical energy it wants to, and without that frantic speed you become too aware of how very thin a joke it all is.
I made a note to myself in the interval that you don't really direct Edward Fox any more - you just give him his head and try to direct the traffic around him. But much of the success of the second play has to be credited to director Christopher Morahan, for establishing and sustaining exactly the right tone for its humour to work.
In 'Edwin' Fox plays a retired judge who entertains himself by conducting imaginary trials - of the dog for digging up a flower bed, and especially of his oldest friend for a perhaps-imagined decades-old episode of cuckolding. Both the friend and the judge's wife have heard this all before, and either ignore him or play along.
The title character is the judge's son, making a rare visit to his parents, and judge and friend half-seriously argue over which of them is his true father. But the visit (offstage) is a failure, the son having become an uninteresting Americanised businessman, and the two putative fathers now take turns trying to disclaim any genetic connection. Finally the wife has enough and offers her version of history, with surprise answers and new questions.
There is something almost Pinteresque in this search for a past that may be unverifiable and in the role of the woman as keeper of the ambiguities. But the tone is always light, warm and autumnal, with director Morahan guiding his actors (Fox, Woodeson and Polly Adams) to fully realised characterisations of three people who know and love each other too well for mere facts - or lack of facts - to pose any real threat to their happiness.
And Edward Fox's role was made for him, with the judge able to be deliberately provocative right up to the edge of offensiveness, secure in the almost-conscious knowledge that no one, least of all us, takes him seriously.
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