The Judge Reviews: legal aid propaganda play is worthy but dull

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By Judge John Hack on

“The Invisible” won’t sway Michael Gove, but it will bore audiences


Agitprop has its place — just as a sledgehammer has its place on a building site.

But as enjoyable theatre and art, agitprop more often than not leaves a lot to be desired on the entertainment front. And Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play — “The Invisible”, which is running at London avant garde venue the Bush Theatre until 15 August — is not the exception that proves the rule.

The play tells several stories of lawyers and ordinary punters affected by the current reforms to legal aid eligibility and fee rates.

That’s unquestionably a timely and worthy subject. A glance at the comments on any of Legal Cheek’s articles on the legal aid reforms and the resulting lawyer strike action quickly illustrates the strong emotions around the issue.

But just as the play’s lead character, law centre solicitor Gayle, played by Alexandra Gilbreath, expresses a forlorn desire in the opening scene to escape from the traumas of her job, even legal aid lawyers need a break. Yet this play is so unremittingly and grindingly on message that it wouldn’t be surprising if lawyers in the audience thought it was just another day in the office.

Lenkiewicz’s message is pretty straightforward. Britain’s once internationally lauded and envied legal aid system is being rapidly dismantled by an uncaring and callous Conservative government, which, unhindered by coalition with the Liberal-Democrats, can now wield the wrecking ball with gay abandon.

Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary Michael Gove and his predecessor, Chris Grayling, are referred to in cartoon bogeymen terms. The actors almost pause after uttering their names, in expectation of pantomime-style booing and hissing from the audience.

Indeed, the current political debate is shoehorned into the script. There are moments when the narrative effectively screeched to a stop so the lawyer characters could make a point — occasionally technically incorrect — about the amount of money slashed from the legal aid budget, the reduced eligibility levels and the resulting degradation caused to wider society.

Fair enough — that’s the point of agitprop. But “The Invisible” fails to provide even a hint of historical awareness. While Gove and Grayling are understandably reviled, there is no reference in the script to several other important characters in the tale of the demise of legal aid.

For example, what of Pugin wallpaper lovin’ Derry Irvine? Or the now slimmed down Lord Falconer? Or indeed, alleged gun for hire Jack Straw? The fingerprints of all three senior Labour politicians are on knives that have sliced and diced legal aid long before the Gove-Grayling duet limbered up.

All right, the play’s politics are one-sided — so what? Sadly, the interwoven stories themselves are not enough to save the evening.

The characters are little more than caricatures: a slightly randy, but heart-of-gold salesman; a south-Asian mini-cab firm owner, who kowtows to his domineering mother and can’t help bashing about his new young bride, the product of an arranged marriage; and a permanently pissed but jolly Irish former merchant seaman, who is soon to be homeless.

There is also a bizarre cartoon portrayal of a bumbling fool of a country doctor. One wonders how lawyers would feel if a propaganda play about reforms to the National Health Service included the depiction of a stereotypical arrogant fat cat lawyer.

Despite good intentions, therefore, there is not much to recommend “The Invisible”. Lawyers won’t learn much from it or be entertained by it; and the general public won’t attend in great numbers.

Indeed, it is difficult to see what attracted Lenkiewicz to the project. She is a big name, having won an Academy Award earlier this year for co-writing the script to Polish film “Ida”.

Madani Younis, the Bush’s artistic director, is married to a criminal law solicitor practising in Bradford, and it is understood that the theatre commissioned the play. Likewise, the Law Society — the body that represents solicitors in England and Wales — backed the production with undisclosed funding.

Obviously, if in west London, go along and make up your own minds. But The Judge’s betting is that you’ll stagger out after two and a half hours feeling a bit grumpy.

Lead image via Helen Maybanks