Less singing, more law please
Somewhere between King’s Cross and Camden Road, nestled away in a charming building that looks surprisingly like a house from the outside, is a small theatre called the Theatro Technis.
This week, it has been showing a play about Tunji Sowande, the country’s first black head of chambers and first black judge.
Performed in its entirety by actor Tayo Aluko on a very bare stage, the 90-minute performance was watched with baited breath by an eerily quiet audience (I felt the stares as I unscrewed my water bottle, so rest assured the packet of crisps stayed firmly stowed away).
What became abundantly clear minutes into the performance was that it wasn’t really a play about law or being a lawyer at all.
Despite its website and poster (below) showing Sowande donning a wig and gown, he remained dressed in a quirky suit and bowtie throughout. The, very minimal, stage furnishings included a desk heaped with paperwork, but there was no mention of whether these piles included law books and letters, for example. With only fleeting references to his legal career made, I couldn’t help feeling the play’s title, ‘Just an Ordinary Lawyer’, didn’t quite capture its spirit.
It was a shame, because Sowande’s career story is one that should be told. Arriving in London from Nigeria in 1945 and trying to make it as a barrister during a period of racial tension and unrest, former pharmacist Sowande — who died in 1996 — had his audience hooked when he detailed his first ever pupillage interview, at Castle Mount Chambers.
“I suggest you leave English courts to English lawyers”, he was told by his bigoted interviewer. “Get on the next boat home and go establish yourself in Bongo-Bongo land.”
Clearly Sowande and other lawyers from ethnic minority backgrounds faced serious difficulties making it to the top; I wish this theme had been explored more deeply.
Eventually, Sowande secured pupillage and tenancy following a chance meeting with barrister Jeffrey Howard. He built up a successful criminal law practice and climbed the greasy pole to become head of 3 Kings Bench Walk in June 1968, the same year Martin Luther King was assassinated. The story was documented, he told the audience, in ‘The Barrister’ magazine (this was long before the days of Legal Cheek, you see.)
Once the ‘successful lawyer’ box was ticked about 50 minutes in, the rest of the play was spent for the most part discussing race relations in the 1960s and beyond. Other more personal experiences were also documented, like Sowande’s mother’s funeral and his falling out with son Tunde.
Without question, Aluko is an extraordinary talent. Theatre revellers were quick to sing his praises in an after-performance Q&A (picture below). He has command, spoke with eloquence and not once fluffed his lines.
But for me, the play would’ve benefited from two things: less singing and less cricket.
Though Aluko’s voice was powerful, the songs were too short and infrequent to rightly describe the play as a musical. The classical power ballads didn’t quite match the upbeat, funny tone of the play and I didn’t always understand their relevance to the story. It also meant there was a pianist (Horacio López Redondo) on stage throughout, who was only put to use about six times (at one point, he stood up from his instrument and was used as a coat stand).
As for the cricket, I guess that’s a matter of personal taste. Sowande is cricket-mad, wields a bat in several scenes and keeps a distinct red ball on his cluttered work desk. It didn’t float my boat, but it did prompt this comment from an audience member during the Q&A:
Cricket is a lot like social democracy: if you don’t know the rules, you don’t understand it. We had a court case this week which showed Theresa May what social democracy is — she seemed to have forgotten the rules!
Perhaps the biggest revelation came at the end of the question session when Aluko revealed he had pieced the play together by reading books on the time period and by interviewing Sowande’s family members and former chambers colleagues (two of whom were in the crowd). I think this shocked a few audience-members who had assumed he’d worked from an autobiography, and it certainly made me appreciate Aluko and his talents more. “You really captured his likeness”, one of Sowande’s old barrister pals told the thespian. Aluko looked noticeably moved.
Aluko is looking into performing the show at Inner Temple in the future. Is it worth seeing? Maybe, but only if you’re in to cricket.
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