Theatre review: Just an ordinary lawyer? A play, with songs

Teatro Technis, London, 11-22 January
Written and performed by Tayo Aluko, with live piano accompaniment. Directed by Amanda Huxtable. Designed by Emma Williams

Just an Ordinary Lawyer is a one-man show about Tunji Sowande, the first black person to be appointed a Recorder and thus to sit as a judge in England. He came here after the war from Nigeria, fuelled we are told by his passions for classical music and for cricket, both of which feature prominently in the play. He also read for the Bar, was Called in 1952, and ended his days living in a flat above his chambers in Inner Temple.

Tayo Aluko, who both wrote and performs this, calls it a ‘play with songs’. The narrative is indeed punctuated by several songs, performed beautifully. Like Sowande himself, he has a fine baritone voice and was accompanied by Horacio Lopez Redondo on the piano. The songs range from rousing hymns which Sowande would sing to the residents in nursing homes – his first job here – to Deep River to a Yoruban song to commemorate the death of his mother.  

There are four main themes – music, law, sport and politics. A sombre part of the narrative is the description of his first pupillage interview. Looking at the photographs on the wall of the room of the head of chambers, he imagined that they would have a civilised talk about cricket over a glass of sherry. Instead he was advised to go back to ‘Bongo Bongo Land’. Fortunately he persevered and got a place in 3 King’s Bench Walk. He cut his teeth on dock briefs. He was most proud of the help he gave to other Commonwealth barristers over the years. 

Although not active politically himself, Sowande felt deeply what was going on around him and the play describes itself as musing on ‘Imperialism, Colonialism and Black people’s struggle for freedom, justice and human rights, in Africa and the disapora’. Cricket and politics and the politics of cricket are prominent. In particular, the story of the great South African cricketer of Cape Coloured descent, Basil D’Oliveira, whom Sowande proudly saw play for England, and the international row over whether he would be included in the England team to South Africa and whether the test could go ahead if he were. 

I saw the show at the Theatro Technis in north London. It will tour around the country together with his one-man show about Paul Robeson. Inevitably the set is simple—a desk, a chair, a barrister’s gown, a cricket bat. Aluko brilliantly balances the various elements of the story and creates the picture of a remarkable, humane and forgiving man. At the end of each performance there is a Q&A, on this night with the fine director, Amanda Huxtable, who is an artistic associate at Hull Truck Theatre. As the oldest barrister there I was able to recall when chambers were ghettoised and located in what were then considered to be remote parts of the Inns. The Bar and the bench now look very different. It is a good time to remember one of the pioneers.

Tour dates

Following performances in London, Bath and Canada, Just an ordinary lawyer is on tour: 20 April at Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds; 3-4 June at Marlborough Theatre @ Brighton Fringe; 8 June at CAST in Doncaster. See www.justanordinarylawyer.com

Reviewer David Wurtzel, Counsel Editorial Board

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.