Review: Lady Hale and Sir Brian Leveson perform alongside TV and film stars in tragic play about women’s fight for equality within the legal profession

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By Katie King on

It was rough around the edges, but the message was there

Image via CBD Photography

If legal profession red carpet events were a thing, then this would be the Oscars.

Supreme Court deputy president Lady Hale, Sir Brian Leveson of the Queen’s Bench Division, former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, and new terror laws watchdog Max Hill QC were just some of the hundreds of lawyers in attendance at Middle Temple on Sunday night.

My seat for the evening

They, and I, were there to watch the premiere of a brand new play by Alex Giles called ‘The Disappearance of Miss Bebb’. The performance followed the truly tragic story of Gwyneth Bebb (played by Call the Midwife’s Laura Main), a first-class Oxford jurisprudence graduate from Wales born into an era when women are seen as second-class citizens and are unable to join the legal profession.

Alongside three other women and with help from her lawyer Stanley Buckmaster KC (Judge John Deed’s Martin Shaw), Bebb launches a legal challenge in 1913 against the Law Society.

She faces adversity at every stage, both from her family (Bebb’s mother: “if you love the law so much, why don’t you just find a local solicitor and marry him?) and the courts. Her case fails at first instance, thanks to a booming shutdown from Mr Justice Joyce (Sir Brian Leveson, who is actually quite a good actor), and later on appeal.

Laura Main and Gwyneth Bebb (with her daughter Diana)

Throughout this, Bebb’s personal life isn’t all too rosy. Her sister is being raped and abused by her boyfriend, later her husband. Things became especially hard for Bebb when the rock of the family, her father, dies suddenly.

The law is eventually amended in 1919 thanks to Bebb and co’s tireless campaign of “winning hearts”. A helping hand from sympathetic MP Mr Hills (Mock the Week’s Hugh Dennis) and a post-war change in attitude help speed things along. Bebb, now married to Thomas Thomson (Beauty and the Beast’s Ray Fearon), is well on her way to becoming the first woman admitted to the bar.

Left to right: Hugh Dennis, Ray Fearon and Melanie Gutteridg

However, part-way through her bar studies and just months after attending a House of Commons banquet to celebrate the statutory change, Bebb dies following a difficult childbirth with her second daughter. She was 31. The women who she campaigned so tirelessly alongside shudder at the thought of Bebb being referred to as ‘A solicitor’s wife’ on her death certificate. So one, Maud Ingram (The Bill’s Melanie Gutteridge), couldn’t help but deface the certificate in “big, black letters” to read ‘barrister at law’ instead.

Bebb’s story is one that should be told, but the play, as I saw it, was a little rough around the edges.

The show was performed on a small stage with few props (pictured below). There was minimal movement: the actors and actresses spoke their lines into old school-style microphones, then waited patiently on chairs at the back of the stage when their character wasn’t in scene.

All the performers carried scripts, which they read from throughout the play. The actors emulated steam train noises by breathing into microphones, while pianist David Osmond was on hand to deliver other sound effects (the sounds of clinking glasses and scratching cutlery during restaurant scenes, for example). I thought the makeshift vibe was charming at first; after over two hours with no interval, it was slightly grating.

Regardless of the stripped back stage, the message was there.

Almost 100 years after the statutory change Bebb fought so tirelessly for, access to the profession is still a hot topic. It was fitting, therefore, that Sunday night’s event was a fundraiser for The Kalisher Trust, a legal charity “which supports those who aspire to become criminal barristers.” For that reason, it was easy to forgive the play’s thrown together, unrefined feel. I have to applaud the actors and actresses who performed for free, and in that I include Hale and Leveson. Neither looked out of place alongside the professionals, and they were both such good sports.

The audience

And, as is often the case when you shove a load of lawyers in a room together, giggles at the legal profession were aplenty. Perhaps the biggest laugh came when Bebb confessed she fancied becoming a barrister, not a solicitor, despite the legal challenge at this stage focusing exclusively on the Law Society. Her lawyer’s response? “If you think the Law Society is a tough nut to crack, the Bar Council is impregnable!”

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