Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Theatre review: Twelve Angry Men

There's lots of shows opening in the West End right now and for a moment I thought tonight's had got a bit confused: The sound effect of a speeding train over the opening made me wonder if I'd rocked up at the Hitchcock adaptation a week early. But the sound turns out to be on-theme for this stage transfer of another famous film, which Reginald Rose adapted from his own 1954 screenplay. The Twelve Angry Men in question are the jury in a murder case, twelve white men deciding whether a black teenager stabbed his father in the middle of the night. Eleven jurors immediately cast their guilty vote but Juror 8 (Television's Martin Shaw) has reasonable doubt, and asks only that the rest take the time to discuss the case before condemning a man to death. The evidence is largely circumstantial but there's a lot of it - yet it turns out to be easier to poke holes in than the perfunctory defence made it look in court.

With a TV-friendly cast and a well-loved title, Twelve Angry Men seems another safe choice for the West End, and though nothing about the production contradicts this I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying it. It may help that, however famous the film might be, I've never actually seen it. Neither had Ian, who was my theatregoing companion tonight, so we were both able to treat the story's twists as fresh.

And this is a story structure that appeals to me - the lone voice, not necessarily of innocence, but of reasonable doubt, slowly taking apart the apparently solid arguments for the prosecution. Inevitably there's a few jurors whose personal prejudices are affecting their judgement, but racism is only significantly a factor for one of them. Most interesting is seeing those jurors who believed they'd made a logical and unbiased decision, slowly find it challenged.

I don't find Television's Martin Shaw the most dynamic of performers but that's somehow suited to Juror 8, the least angry of the men and motivated not by personal issues but by wishing to do very precisely the job he was sworn in to do. We probably find out the least about him as a person, in contrast to his nemesis, the furious Juror 3 (Hollywood's Jeff Fahey.) Probably the most satisfying thing about the story's construction is that once 8 has set the ball rolling by converting the oldest juror, 9 (U.N.C.L.E's Robert Vaughn) and the youngest, 5 (Theatre's Edward Franklin) to his cause, it's the rest of the jurors themselves whose attempt to prove guilt inadvertently leads them to shed doubt. Low Budget Gangster Movies' Nick Moran as the spivvy 7 goes from dismissing the discussions because he's got a baseball game to get to, to being quite shaken up by the process. It's just a shame the play's climax as 3 confronts the real reason for his resistance is probably the cheesiest moment of the whole evening.

Christopher Haydon's production doesn't provide many fireworks but is solid, the jury's table set on a revolve that spins so slowly it takes a while to even realise it's moving (I think it describes just a single complete revolution over the two hours.) And if Franklin didn't quite sell me on the idea that he was a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, he does turn out to be very good at finding the light on a constantly-moving stage. It's good when drama schools teach them something useful.

Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose is booking until the 1st of March at the Garrick Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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