Showtrial review: Courtroom drama deals with grand themes – but the dialogue doesn’t live up to them

State-of-the-nation thriller explores the mutability of ‘truth’, the tricks memory plays on us and the effect of public opinion on the course of justice

Ed Cumming
Sunday 31 October 2021 22:00
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<p>Celine Buckens as Talitha Campbell in ‘Showtrial’</p>

Celine Buckens as Talitha Campbell in ‘Showtrial’

The first few minutes of Showtrial (BBC One) are mildly disorientating. The new five-episode courtroom drama has lots of grand themes – class, prejudice, corruption, the justice system – and doesn’t muck about before plunging us into things. After a university ball, a student, Hannah Ellis (Abra Thompson), goes missing. The only clue to what might have happened is a series of unpleasant text messages sent to her by Talitha Campbell (Celine Buckens), the daughter of a wealthy property developer. Hannah is a popular, hard-working young woman, who has earned her rewards rather than being granted them via an expensive education. Talitha is the opposite, an entitled little witch with slime-green fingernails.

The viewer is thrown in via a series of rapid quick cuts, more energetic and stylish than we are used to from this kind of Beeb state-of-the-nation drama, which can tend to be dreary on the cinematography front. For a moment there I thought I’d stumbled across some stylish foreign indie film.

The script is by Ben Richards, the brains behind Cobra, the Robert Carlyle political thriller that miraculously shrugged off an iffy early review in The Independent and has barrelled along for two series. There is some of the same energy here, with different storylines slowly being drawn together as the case reveals things the characters would rather keep hidden.

When she is first arrested, Talitha is arrogant to the point of obnoxiousness, apparently blind to the seriousness of the accusations. Either that, or she is an excellent liar. Talitha’s solicitor, Cleo Roberts (Tracy Ifeachor), must try not to let her client’s unlikable nature get in the way of her doing her job. Most of the early drama comes from the two women dancing around each other. The world would love to take down a Talitha, and prejudice has a way of warping the facts. At first Talitha doesn’t want her family involved, worried that her secret moonlighting as a sex worker might be revealed.

Eventually, however, as the stakes get higher, Talitha’s father, Damian (James Frain) is pulled in. He is every bit as charming and friendly as you might expect a gazillionaire property developer to be. The investigating detective, Paula Cassidy (Sinead Keenan) is determined that Talitha knows more than she is letting on, but when the accused has such powerful friends, the case must be watertight.

At its best, Showtrial raises all the usual courtroom tensions around the mutability of “truth”, the tricks memory plays on us, and the effect of public opinion on the course of justice. Buckens and Ifeachor both put in a shift as they try to suss each other out. It’s a difficult dynamic, solicitor and brat, but Ifeachor in particular gives a performance that captures the contradictions of the legal system, where clients they don’t like, who have potentially done reprehensible things, must be defended to the best of the lawyer’s ability.

But in order to be truly gripping, these sorts of dramas must work as character studies as well as thrillers, and the dialogue doesn’t always live up to its ambition. I’m not sure a British solicitor would refer to “the slammer”, as Cleo does in the opening minutes. And Talitha’s petulant poor little rich girl shtick makes her hard to take seriously at times. As she is taken into the station, Talitha tells a police officer that her bracelet is worth more than he will make in his whole lifetime. She doesn’t need to: it’s already implied by every atom of her being. These imbalances are more powerful when they’re unspoken.

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