The aim was to put into dramatic form the consequences of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 and the legal aid cuts.
The playwright, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, is no stranger to political plays. Her Naked Skin at the National Theatre in 2008 dealt with the Suffragette movement; a number of audience members fainted during the forced feeding scene. Her co-written screenplay for Ida, which won the last Oscar for Best Foreign Film, tackled the aftermath of the Holocaust in Poland. The tiny acting space at the Bush Theatre lacks the breadth of the Olivier Theatre stage or the sweep of cinema, but it can be a place to pack an emotional punch.
Value to society
The Invisible has strong scenes and is carried along by superb acting. At its heart is Alexandra Gilbreath as Gail, a highly competent law clinic solicitor dealing with immensely needy, sometimes foolish and always demanding clients, while operating on a shoestring. She offers wise advice and sympathy no matter what the pressure, and only seems to crack when her landlord serves notice that she has to go. What the play achieves is to depict the worth of a lawyer who does this work, which is valuable to society as a whole.
Curiously, and despite the explicit political purpose of the play, we do not clearly see clients who are being denied justice only because of LASPO. Ken, a middle class man with serious anger management issues, has been denied contact with his children by his wife. We see him on his own in court, predictably exploding. He cannot afford a lawyer but no one actually says that middle class people have been ineligible for legal aid for a long time or that Ken has applied for legal aid but has been told that it is no longer available in private children cases. Shaun, an amiable man who doesn’t quite seem to be of this world, has received over-paid benefit, spent it, and cannot now pay it back, a very old problem of the welfare system. He is sent to a Citizen’s Advice Bureau. Aisha is a Pakistani woman who has come to England as the bride of a British husband who physically and emotionally abuses her. After an abortive visit to the police station, where the interpreter tells her to go back to her husband, Gail and the system help her. The personal background stories take quite a long time to unfold. I expected to see LASPO appear again and again as the villain of the piece, but it doesn’t happen, apart from Gail complaining about the government.
Meanwhile, both Gail and her dedicated assistant Laura suffer their own emotional deprivation. Laura has an insensitive boyfriend – the actors playing them double as Aisha and her husband and play both parts pretty much the same. Gail twice takes a chance on computer blind dating, first with Ken and then with a struck off doctor. Both are ludicrously unsuitable for her. This seems to say more about computer blind dating (and how to extricate yourself from the restaurant) than it does about legal aid cuts. Both men want sex and free legal advice; in due course, Ken gets both. Oddest of all are the gratuitous moments when the characters break off a scene, go into a dance, and then resume the scene.
At the end, with Gail facing eviction, the play brings matters up to date. There are references to small firms going under, tendering for contracts and Tesco’s law. But it is so fleeting and unexplained, one wonders how much the lay audience got it or understood. “Then we’ll shout about it,” Laura says at one point. “We have been shouting. Nobody’s heard,” Gail replies. It is a fight which will have to be conducted elsewhere.
Showing at the Bush Theatre until 15 August 2015.
Reviewer: David Wurtzel, editorial board member, Counsel magazine