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Killing Eve star Jodie Comer absolutely storms the West End in this one-woman show, playing a barrister specialising in sexual assault cases who is herself then raped. Her working-class character Tessa Ensler starts off as an exuberant ball of energy, swaggering and shimmying around a set lined with legal files, glorying in her ability to navigate the hierarchy and the technical nuances of law.
Not to mention its innate theatricality: a barrister friend once pointed out to me the significance of costume, staging and ritual in court, something Tessa’s character embraces. She relishes the idea of adversarial performance, of winning over the crowd. After the violation, she’s physically stiff, emotionally stripped, wounded but uncowed. Even her face looks different. Tessa’s elegantly mocking cheekbones suddenly seem stark and strained.
It’s an extraordinarily gutsy and rich performance by Comer in only her second ever stage role – the first was in Scarborough 13 years ago, when she was 16 - and it confirms her as a star. Suzie Miller’s script is a great vehicle rather than a truly great play, however - shrewd and economical in its analysis of how the system treats assault survivors, but schematic in its plotting.
It is also timely, arriving as unspeakable delays to UK rape trials and the paucity of convictions are in the headlines. And timeless, because the burden of proof has always fallen on women. Significantly, Tessa’s attacker is someone she previously had consensual sex with. After the assault, Miller has her protagonist perform all the typically documented reactions – scouring her body, deleting texts, doubting herself – that will later rebound in court.
Originally premiered in Miller’s native Australia in 2019, the play has presumably been tweaked to reflect the UK’s legal system and class structure. Comer, so good at accents in Killing Eve and her Hollywood debut Free Guy, gets to use her native Liverpudlian here, but deftly modulates it according to Tessa’s emotional state, and whether she’s with family, friends or colleagues. Her intricate performance embraces such subtlety, a physical abandon uncommon in screen actors, and piercing vulnerability.
Of course, she doesn’t do it alone. Suzie Miller lays out the issues and the challenges. Director Justin Martin, previously best-known as an assistant to bigger names, supplies pace and clearly encouraged his star to be bold, not timid. There’s an evocative, heartbeat-led soundtrack by Self Esteem. Designer Miriam Buether gives Comer suits, slacks, shirts and dresses that fit each change to Tessa’s personality, often leaving her symbolically barefoot. She also brings a rainstorm onstage and furnishes a final visual coup that I won’t spoil.
But Comer is the reason we’re here. Her commitment made the production happen and kept it alive through delays. We all wanted to know if she’s as good live on stage as she is on screen. And the answer is no: she’s better.
Harold Pinter Theatre, to 18 June; primafacieplay.com