Thomas de Quincey once wrote of murder as ‘one of the fine arts’, and with regards to The Establishment [versus] Sidney Harry Fox, the statement is true. Glenn Chandler’s reimagining of the famous matricide trial is less about conviction than it is about moral complicity. The play positions itself as an assessment of prejudice; looking at the year 1930 to provide a snapshot of Britain between two wars, whilst paradoxically at war with its own principles of fair trial and impartial access to justice. The sexuality and social mobility of Sidney Fox seem to be of far more importance to the prosecution than his actual charge (violent matricide). In the opening scene a superb Mike Duran, who plays defence lawyer J.D Cassels, introduces the pending legal battle and its rules of engagement (read: foul play). Opposite Duran, Amanda Bailey’s performance as Rosaline Fox provide scenes of connection and intimacy. Throughout Chandler’s play, the two are pronounced voices of direction on each of Sidney’s shoulders.
vivacious, funny, and insightful
Sebastian Calver’s portrayal of Sidney Fox is suitably fraught, whilst maintaining an unwavering air of eternal optimism that is captivating to watch. The optimism is simultaneously endearing and infuriating; Cassel’s pleas for his defendant to take the case seriously are met with an invective of spirited and flippant remarks, which are also laceratingly astute observations of a gay man’s likelihood of survival in a society that never wanted him as an active participant. It is this swinging pendulum of social mobility and social impossibility that sets the tempo of Chandler’s tragicomic play throughout.
The costume design of David Shields plays on the historic brief with aplomb; Calver’s suit is loud and social, whereas Duran’s is grave and double-breasted. Catja Hamilton’s lighting and projection designs clearly delineate changes in time and space whilst invoking the spirit of the roaring 20’s and avant-garde explorations into post-war hedonism. A lovely touch here is that the pursuit of pleasure as an essential need is not limited to Sidney’s character outline only – his mother has similar interests in this field.
Chandler’s script signposts a sensitive interest in the historic case beyond murder mystery tropes. Ultimately, he delivers a bait-and-switch within the title of his own play; for although Sidney Fox is on trial, it is the underhand & highly suspicious coordination of the prosecution that is offered to the audience for objective analysis. Chandler rightly draws reference to possible collusion between the prosecution and the chief medical officer on the case; their shared holidays, car journeys, and on-the-record desires to make examples of young men who insisted on living their sexuality outside of secret and closeted spaces. History does not happen in a vacuum and there are clear reference points and modern resemblances that sometimes make the viewing rightfully uncomfortable.
Chandler’s script is commendable in its earnest and accurate portrayal of a high society that often acted criminally, whilst calling those who are less fortunate ‘criminals’. It is vivacious, funny, and insightful – a resonant and modern entry into historic revisionism and the motivations of culpability.