Monday 11 November 2013

Twelve Angry Men

Birmingham Rep Theatre, prior to West End run

5th October, 2013

This was only the second performance of Christopher Haydon’s production before a short tour and a run now at the Garrick Theatre, London.

The newly-refurbished Birmingham Repertory Theatre first opened to the tour of Alan Bennett’s newest, excellent play People this Autumn. It now acts as the opening venue for this starry production of Reginald Rose’s 1954 television play, adapted for the stage the following year and then famously into a film starring Henry Fonda in 1957.

Probably most famous as a film, this play is extremely naturalistic. It is closely set in real time and sees 12 New York jurors locked in a room with the task of deciding whether a young man is guilty of murdering his father. Initially, all the evidence points to a guilty vote but in an early vote, the persistent juror no.8 says that he is ‘not guilty’ meaning they all have to reluctantly stay in this stuffy room and unpick the details of the case. Soon, it completely falls apart and one by one, the jurors change their mind.

It was an extremely assured performance from only the second time in front of an audience and will surely have got better before the West End run. However, the opening ten minutes or so could have done with some tightening but the opening of most plays is dedicated to getting to know the characters and situation so the decision for the characters to settle into the room by opening windows and their collar buttons while getting into it is an apt one.

Listening is certainly important in this play but the argument is played out with utter captivation. What is most enjoyable is hearing the argument against the accused fall apart. From seeing a duplicate knife of the supposedly unique murder weapon brought into the room and slammed down onto the table to seeing juror no.8 act out how long it would take an elderly neighbour to get from their bed to the front door to see the murderer run off. Another fascinatingly theatrical moment that gives the audience chills is the discussion of whether saying ‘I’ll kill him’ is always meant as taken. Juror no.3 is adamant that it does until angered by juror no.8 which eventually leads no.3 to say it himself. This marks the end of the act and the pause and blackout leaves us and juror no.3 realising that our words aren’t always justified with actions.

Martin Shaw seemed to be enjoying himself giving a strong performance as the resilient and persuasive juror no.8. But it is Jeff Fahey’s juror no.3 that really stands out as a gutsy stage performance. He is the juror who is the last to change his mind and although it seems a little contrived for him to be so adamant that the boy is guilty because his relationship with his own son isn’t good, Fahey still gives a superbly powerful performance. The magnificent Robert Vaughn was a little unsure of his lines at this early performance but another cast member prompted him followed by nods of agreement by other cast members. How excellently this was handled is testament to what a compelling production this is. The only slight criticism with the casting is that you can hardly tell who anyone is due to the abundance of them on stage!

Michael Pavelka’s unnaturalistic set reminds us that we are in a theatre. The doors, windows, radiators, bathroom and even light switches keep the set detailed but the lack of walls and strong presence of a lighting rig to hold it together reminds me of Pavelka’s set for Propeller’s The Comedy of Errors a few years ago. We could sometimes think we are watching a film, but this design gives the production an element of theatricality. There is also a slight revolve which is effectively used and some nice rain-effects. Before the performance and during the interval, New York street sounds played in the auditorium help place us in the heat of the city.

The ensemble cast work brilliantly together, with Nick Moran and Miles Richardson also standing out. This recommended, compelling drama should do well in the West End and marks another success for producer Nica Burns and a well-deserved one for Bill Kenwright Productions. This is a classy and thought-provoking court room play.

Twelve Angry Men runs at the Garrick Theatre until 1st March, 2014.