Theatre review: Learned Friends

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Learned Friends, a Ginny Davis Production
9 June 2018, Manchester Crown Court, Minshull Street
Percentage of ticket sales to The British Red Cross Society Manchester Emergency Fund set up following the Manchester Arena Attack in 2017
Birminghamfest 2016 Best Original Piece


Bag checks are a common feature of entry into a West End theatre these days but they’re not usually carried out by a uniformed employee of G4S, nor with such rigour as was applied at entrance to the charity performances of Ginny Davis’s award-winning play Learned Friends at Manchester Crown Court, Minshull Street on 9 June.

Once inside, the audience was guided by robed ushers into the jury assembly area, adapted into a theatre space representing a barristers’ robing room. A cluttered table, old case materials strewn beneath, a framed photograph of Grand Day 2012 hanging behind. Two middle-aged professional women meet, awkwardly, then part. Not until the final scene when this encounter is repeated does its meaning become clear. Flash back. The same two women awaiting the verdict in the trial of a high profile football manager. Prosecution counsel is bored and in playful mood. Defence counsel is preoccupied but can’t resist the distractions her long time sparring partner presents. Anyway, she’s heard good news. She’s through to the interview round in her application for Silk, and the fact that the defendant is refusing to speak to her is something she can deal with. It’s all going swimmingly until the jury ask a question. They’ve noticed something. And this something is an unexploded hand grenade. The question is temporarily wafted aside but the mood has changed. Prosecution counsel is thoughtful. And then the grenade explodes. Playful banter is replaced with a row of epic scale. Counsel engage in full on adversarial battle – an engagement which is foreshortened by the usher’s announcement that the jury has reached a verdict and everyone, that means everyone: audience included, must move into court.

"This is more Silk than Judge John Deed. Prosecution counsel is played by the writer, defence counsel with utter authenticity by Sharon Baylis. It is tense and intriguing. If you want to see what could happen behind the scenes of a criminal trial this is your go-to play"

Court Five of Minshull Street Crown Court (and previously Court One of the Old Bailey where the play was performed in 2016 and 2017) now becomes the stage. The audience sits up close and personal with the actors – some within touching distance. They populate the jury benches, the dock, counsel’s benches, some alongside the judge. An usher cries ‘Court rise’ and no one in the room thinks to demur as the judge enters, fully robed. During the ensuing scene what the audience sees depends on where they are sitting. Those in the jury box are despatched to determine which of two possible conclusions they’d prefer to see. Those in court watch a comic scene between a gossipy court clerk (Ella-Siobhan Barker) and prosecution counsel. The jury deliver their verdict and the play concludes, according to their choice of ending. The opening scene is repeated and now the awkward encounter makes perfect sense. ‘Learned Friends’ written by former practising criminal barrister Ginny Davis and performed by a professional cast including a serving judge, former court usher and former West End and RSC actors lends a close eye to detail.

This is more Silk than Judge John Deed. Prosecution counsel is played by the writer, defence counsel with utter authenticity by Sharon Baylis (The Bill, Emmerdale, The Mousetrap) and the cast included actor Michael Bott (Darkest Hour and Black Mirror). It is tense and intriguing. If you want to see what could happen behind the scenes of a criminal trial this is your go-to play. Manchester performances were sponsored by Brewin Dolphin, Burton Copeland, Kings Chambers and Lincoln House Chambers. They were also supported by former High Sheriff Gerry Yeung OBE DL.

Reviewer Sally Penni is a barrister at Kenworthy’s Chambers, Manchester specialising in crime and employment law and is Vice Chair of Association of Women Barristers and CEO of Women in the Law UK. She is part of the CBA Social Mobility Committee.

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Sally Penni

Barrister, Kenworthy’s, Joint Vice Chair of Association of Women Barristers, and Founder of Women in the Law