Just An Ordinary Lawyer at The Liverpool Playhouse Studio

Posted on 6 October 2016
By Chris High
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In the intimacy that The Liverpool Playhouse Theatre Studio provides, a play about injustice, strife, struggle, recognition, respect and – ultimately – triumph against the odds, should surely resonate on all levels. However, although Just An Ordinary Lawyer does indeed tick some of the boxes required to be ‘compelling’, it also comes across as something of a rage against the machine that is – in this case – somewhat misappropriated.

Nigerian Tunji Sowande quietly breaks through multiple barriers to become Britain’s first Black judge in 1978. Also a fine concert singer and keen cricket lover, Sowande muses on international politics and history as they affect the Black world from Africa to the USA and Britain, from the point of view of one who would rather watch sports, and spread love and peace through the medium of song.

That Tayo Aluko is exemplary in the delivery of his own script is unquestionable. His poise and restraint in getting across Sowande’s point of view is admirable, whereas the lawyer’s love for sport and the metaphor it is used as in illustration that all things are equal on the field of play – whether that be team events such as cricket or individual endeavours such as the 1968 200 meters final – is clear and well sustained.

Aluko, as did his subject, also has a fine baritone which resonates and reverberates with such power and grace, it adds an additional dimension to proceedings and an insight into what drove the man and the lawyer combined. Indeed, Sowande regularly played the concert circuit and performed with the likes of Jonnie Dankworth and Paul Robeson whilst studying.

However, the problem with Just An Ordinary Lawyer actually lies in the subject its himself. Trapped in an unhappy marriage in Lagos, Sowande apparently decided to move to London and train at King’s College to become a lawyer. In doing so, not only does he leave behind a wife and son, he takes across with him his young daughter. Once this has been established, very little reference is made to either child until the dying embers of the play are reached.

It is as this point where the difficulties in feeling anything warm towards Sowande come into play because it appears that Sowande apparently decided to practice law in England not for the upholding of justice, but rather to become within the greater proximity of Lords cricket ground and all of the other esteemed venues which house his beloved sport.

That Sowande was initially rejected from his place within the elitist circle of barristers to which he was entitled on the grounds of his race, is obviously unforgiveable. This however was a period in history in which such views were no matter how disgracefully not unusual.

Yet rather than explore this, Aluko has decided to skip over the troubles Sowande did or didn’t face – we honestly don’t know – and instead chooses to rely upon a chance meeting that got Sowande work which would finally lead him to become Head of Chambers at 3 King’s Bench Walk in 1968.

There is no mention whatsoever as to how he rose through the ranks, of the cases he undertook or of his support of his fellow black lawyers in gaining acceptance. Instead, what ensues is something of a rant against what is depicted as being ‘white imperialism’ and the way in which greater society viewed – and still views – non-whites in Britain.

This seems more than a little strange. Sowande’s character comes across as every bit elitist as those his character rails against. This is best exemplified by his refusal to help other fans at Lords sweep water from the outfield so that the last day of the match can take place: for fear of being spotted on camera doing such menial tasks. After all, I was Head of Chambers at 3 King’s Bench Walk.”

As result, Just Another Lawyer becomes less of a biography of a man of his times who blazed a trail that others could follow, and more of a rant that more than occasionally smacks of snobby hypocrisy. This is a shame because, through Sowande, there is a potential tale bursting to be told. In order to do this though, it has to be more of a study of the man and his career rather than the views of the writer that needs to shine more brightly.

Just An Ordinary Lawyer
The Liverpool Playhouse Studio
October 4 – October 8, 2016
Author / Cast: Tayo Aluko
PR Rating: ** Dropped Catch

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