DIANA ECCLESTON reviews the stage classic’s latest, riveting production, performed by Jason Merrells and a top cast at the Ashcroft Theatre this week
Written in the 1950s.
You might be forgiven for thinking that Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men is a period piece with little relevance today.
You couldn’t be more wrong. As long as the world needs justice, people need to see this play.
An all-male, all-white jury (what a sign of those times!) has just heard the case against a 16-year-old boy from a deprived background who is accused of murdering his abusive father by stabbing him in the chest with a flick knife.
The 12 angry men of the title must decide his fate: the judge has directed that he wants them to return a unanimous verdict. If convicted the boy will die in the electric chair.
As the dozen retire to make their decision, the odds are stacked against the defendant.
That is until Juror 8 (we never discover the men’s names) demands they discuss the case even though the majority are in no mood to do so. They are pretty sure of his guilt.
It soon becomes evident that the court-appointed defence counsel has made a very feeble effort on the kid’s behalf. Juror 8 questions aspects of the evidence and scrutinises the witness statements. Gradually. his colleagues begin to share his doubts.
Other reviewers have used the words “brilliant”, “gripping” and “riveting” to describe this production, which first played at London’s Garrick Theatre and is now on a brief national tour. I agree with them wholeheartedly.
First Martin Shaw and then Tom Conti played Juror 8, following in the footsteps of Henry Fonda in the Hollywood movie. At Croydon’s Ashcroft Theatre, the mantle falls on Jason Merrells, best known as dastardly Declan Macey in Emmerdale, for which he was voted “Villain of the Year” in the British Soap Awards. He’s also ex-Casualty, Cutting It and Waterloo Road.
This time he’s the good guy, the hero in a saintly white suit who is the conscience of them all. He plays the role with quiet, intelligent charm as he sets about proving to the other men that there is indeed reasonable doubt of the boy’s guilt.
Angriest of the angry collection are Juror 3, played by another soap baddie Andrew Lancel (Frank Foster from Coronation Street) and Juror 10, played by Denis Lill. I’m used to seeing this veteran actor in dignified, even regal, roles (I loved him as King Edward VII in LWT’S Lillie many moons ago). He’s superbly crude and unpleasant here.
Lancel’s character is nastiest of the lot, allowing his personal prejudices to influence his views on the case. And that is one of the themes of the piece: that all of us are guilty of allowing our own experiences to affect the way in which we judge others.
A friend of mine was once on a jury hearing a case in which a man was accused of handling goods knowing or believing them to be stolen. “Everyone does that round my way,” offered a fellow juror, who clearly regarded the crime as no offence at all since it was common practice.
And my own experience as a juror taught me that some jurors often don’t really listen to or take note of the evidence. They just want it over and done with as quickly as possible so they can be somewhere else. Here, only Juror 8 cares enough to want to spend time on discussion.
No wonder the Fonda film is a favourite for showing in schools as it’s such prime material for debate on the topics of justice and ethics.
The casting of this latest stage production is impressive. Robert Duncan is the other TV face on parade (Drop the Dead Donkey) and several of the actors have come with the play from the West End.
The set design is a star in its own right, the brilliant creation of Michael Pavelka, who early in his career was responsible for many inventive sets at Croydon’s late lamented Warehouse Theatre.
This is the hottest day of the year. The guys are stifling in a run-down jury room where there’s no air-con, sweat is pouring off them as tempers and temperatures rise before the storm, metaphorical and literal, breaks and rain gushes down outside.
All the while the large central table revolves imperceptibly, not only adding movement and giving us differing angles of the men but maybe hinting at how the tables are turning when it comes to their mental attitudes and opinions.
Excellent. Truly entertaining (there are laughs, too, believe it or not) and utterly enthralling.
- Twelve Angry Men runs at the Ashcroft Theatre until Saturday, June 13, with matinees on Thursday and Saturday. For ticket booking details, visit the Fairfield Halls website here
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