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Critics' Corner
11 March, 2003  
The Dock Brief

“Poor Player” reviews John Mortimer’s The Dock Brief at The Ensemble. The meagre world of the briefless barrister

The Dock Brief

Written by John Mortimer
Directed by Sandra Bates
Starring Warren Mitchell & Max Gillies

Reviewed by Poor Player

Ensemble Theatre

“Please refrain from fanning yourself with the program. Please unwrap your lollies now.”

Poor Player’s night at the theatre started inauspiciously enough. After having motored across the Bridge past the glittering prizes of harbourfront living; layer upon layer of concrete and glass – we arrived at the lower reaches of the North Shore. Boats bobbed gently in Lavender Bay. A sweet wind riffled through the leafy streets. It was eerie territory indeed for someone who happily wears black at breakfast.

All was not lost, however. Upon securing the last parking spot in hilly Kirribilli, we sauntered towards the twinkling lights of the Ensemble Theatre, humble and historic home to North Shore artistic life for over thirty years.

Suddenly, we found ourselves surrounded by a battery of well-scrubbed retirement home interns. Men in short-sleeved checked shirts and vanilla-coloured gaberdine pants. Women in shiny blouses of a synthetic hue. All of them bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (grey), hanging on to their programs for The Dock Brief as if their very lives depended upon it. This, apparently, is Warren Mitchell’s target audience. They looked suspiciously like lawyers on the lam.

Poor Player elbowed her way to the bar in search of sustenance or relief, whichever came first. Two vodka and tonics later, the threat of an enjoyable night at the theatre seemed thrillingly near.

It must be said that John Mortimer’s The Dock Brief a shortish (around an hour) two-hander, is not one of Sir John’s most celebrated works. It must also, regrettably be said, that there are good reasons for this. The Dock Brief was first performed in 1958, and it shows.

The play is billed as “A murderous comedy about the law” but there’s not nearly enough murder, comedy or law for that matter. This is Mortimer at the very beginning of his barristering and writing careers and he seems a bit shy about showing both cheeks simultaneously.

While almost entirely free of drama, there is some pathos to be had; in a Dad’s Army kind of way. But that could just be Poor Player’s amazement at the astonishing simple-mindedness of the writing. It’s all un peu predictable and as a result, one dimensional. The jokes are pretty rum too, being either too large or too small or too dated or just too unfunny. The characters are awfully thin, although Max Gillies’ briefless barrister William Morgenhall is a fleshy presence.

Pity Gillies can’t actually flesh out the character. He is curiously flat and no-pun-intended, unrounded in his on-stage manifestation. Gillies, who is without a doubt one of the country’s most brilliant impersonators, has an exquisite eye for mimicry. However, he doesn’t seem to be able to bring an imagined character to life. Morgenhall is a cardboard cut-out. Gillies speaks the lines but has no idea of the person behind them.

This is in stark contrast to Warren Mitchell’s character, the “gentle bird fancier” every-pun-intended, Fowle. A consummate actor at 77, Mitchell brings a sly, humane professionalism to the working class codger who has topped his missus because of her relentless “sense of humour”. He just wants a bit of peace. “No sound, just the twitter from the garden.”

Detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, Fowle closes his eyes, points from the dock and secures the services of Morgenhall, a barrister at once hapless and pretentious. Morgenhall presents as the perfect upper-class twit, well-educated but fundamentally stupid. He hasn’t had a brief in years but this doesn’t seem to impinge upon his self-esteem. As befits his station, Morgenhall plays down to Fowle, who in turn looks up to him. After some mildly amusing attempts at rehearsing his speech to the jury, Morgenhall freezes when it comes to the real thing. A mis-trial is declared and Fowle is released after intervention by the Home Secretary; a direct result of Morgenhall’s lawyerly incompetence. It’s mighty unconvincing and all a bit naf.

Poor Player attributed this to the simple fact that Morgenhall has none of the wit, charm or cutting originality of Mortimer’s most subversive and beloved creation, Horace Rumpole.

Of course, Rumpole came much later. And there’s the rub. Poor Player has been well and truly ruined for all manner of other barrister. As far as comedy and the law go, Rumpole rules.

Poor Player liked the set a lot though, and the audience seemed to like the play well enough. Its Ensemble season sold out so fast The Dock Brief has been transferred out west to the Riverside Theatre in Parramatta, where it should do well. They really hate lawyers out there.