Barrister turned actor Ginny Davis talks to Neil Hudson about her play Learned Friends, in which the audience becomes the jury...
Ginny Davis has no qualms about performing in public. Indeed, as we sit in Brown’s for coffee - she’s just emerged from Leeds Crown Court after a meeting to plan the latest stop of her play, Learned Friends - she launches into a scene from one of her other plays, a one-woman show whose central character is called Ruth Rich. Switching between characters, she affects various mannerisms and tics - a subtle shrug of the shoulders for one, a nonchalant brush of the hair over an ear for another. It’s witty, incisive stuff and nothing modern day parents won’t be unfamiliar with.
“Ruth Rich is a middle class mum with three children, so she has a lot of pans on the boil. In the play, the kids cause chaos and so does the husband and she muddles through. In the first play, it’s things like taking them swimming, going into a public loo, both of which throw up embarrassing moments. Then there’s going to parents evenings when the husband spends all his time on the phone and so on.”
But writing is something of a second career for the 63-year-old, because she spent her formative years in the legal profession, first as a solicitor’s clerk and later, after returning to university (she came out with a first from Cambridge), as a barrister.“I worked for criminal solicitor and was absorbed by it, so I decided at 29 to go back to university. I applied to Cambridge, got in and came out with first class honours degree, then qualified for The Bar and practised criminal law during the early 1990s.”
But then family life intervened. She had three children with husband William, who is a judge in real life, and it was during this period, while she was enmeshed in the nonstop cycle of swimming lessons, PTA meetings and all the stresses that go hand in hand with home life that she had a lightbulb moment.
“I suddenly saw the funny side of having kids,” she explains. “I realised when anyone tells a story about their kids, everyone else is laughing. Partly out of relief that it’s not just them. So I started writing sketches for the school review. People would tell me stories and I would adapt them and use them. After a few years of doing that I thought I’m going to write a play, so I did.”
She took that - 10 Days That Shook The Kitchen - to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2008 and it sold out.
“It comes down to me being such a show off,” she muses. “I don’t want to come across like that really but I just thought, if I don’t tell anyone, no-one else will.
“We have always written poems for special occasions in our family. I think I had an inner knowledge I knew I could write. I thought the only way I will ever get this out there is if I do it, that there was no point in hiding my light under a bushel.”
Not only did she take a leap into an unknown world, she did it solo. She’s philosophical about the transition and the fear factor.
“I did consider having other actors in the play but then I just thought how hard it would be to organise all the rehearsals and the staging and probably someone would let me down, so I opted to do all the characters myself.
“I’m a natural performer, a communicator. My very first job was a translator [fluent in French and Spanish and she can now more than get by in Italian]… so there’s always been a level of communication.
“It was nerve-wracking but after my first Edinburgh Fringe, I was hooked. It was the buzz of being in a theatre, of hearing them bringing in extra chairs and knowing it’s all for you… it’s an amazing feeling. It’s not the audience that scares you, it’s not being on top of your subject. As long as you know what you doing, you should be ok.”
Her latest play, which has been on tour for the last two years, sees her return to a subject she knows inside out: the law.
Learned Friends, which won Best Original Piece at BirminghamFest 2016, has more than one selling point. For starters, it’s a play which is set in a real court. She’s already taken it to The Old Bailey and several other courts up and down the land. On March 9, it will arrive in Leeds.
“The play centres on the prosecution and the defence in the robing room while they wait for the jury to come back in at the trial of a football manager accused of wounding. They both have a secret and neither wants the other to know what it is. Inevitably, both secrets are exposed and this leads to a huge dilemma for the defence counsel.”
She goes on: “She is confronted by a choice as to whether to honour her professional obligations or set them aside.”
Cue the next twist of the play, which sees the entire audience move into a real court room, with a random selection being chosen to act as jurors and ultimately determine the outcome of the play.
“There are two endings,” explains Ginny, who clearly relishes her role as prosecution counsel, playing opposite Sharon Bayliss [Bergerac, Eastenders, Juliet Bravo]. “There’s a certain drama just about being in a courtroom. Not everyone has been in one and from an actor’s point of view, it creates a unique atmosphere. For example, when the judge walks in, everyone automatically rises. No-one even questions they’re watching a play.”
To date, Ginny has penned 10 plays. Another, Hound Dog, is based on one of her own experiences - during a holiday in Crete, she took pity on a neglected dog and, despite objections from her family, adopted it and had it brought back to England.
“She’s called Juno and the play I wrote about that is a comedy. Now when I take her out for walks, I often get ideas and I can’t wait to get back so I can write them down.”
She adds: “I’m excited about bringing the play to Leeds. If you are on stage you have to recreate a scene with a lot of props and scenery but here the job’s done for you. I think it adds a lot to it as a production, it partly informs people what it is like in a court but the big thing is the atmosphere is there already. It’s nice to be doing it in Leeds because this is a modern courtroom, this is a modern trial and so from that point of view, it’s much more authentic.”
Ginny grew up in the Midlands with her late father, Geoffrey Smith, a solicitor who died in 2007 aged 91 and mother, Ann, 88 and older sister Linda, who passed away aged 39.
She was called to The Bar in 1989 and worked as a barrister until 1992.
She is married to William and has two children, Rosie, 26, who works in PR and Ralph, 23, who trained at RADA and is currently performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Her first play, 10 Days That Shook The Kitchen, was a sell out at the Edinburgh Fringe. She’s since returned twice with other productions.
Learned Friends will be at Leeds Crown Court on March 9, at noon, 2.30pm and 5pm. Tickets cost £30 plus booking fees, with £5 going to Leeds-based charity Simon on the Streets. It is performed by kind permission of the Recorder of Leeds, His Honour Judge Guy Kearl QC and is sponsored by Brewin Dolphin, Park Square Chambers, Gateley Plc and Weightmans Solicitors.
See https://learnedfriends.eventbrite.co.uk for more details.