“There’s always one”
My classic movie knowledge is terrible – I rarely watch old films and though I am frequently bought DVDs of “must-see classics”, they invariably remain in their wrappers on a shelf, waiting for the day when I finally decide to catch up on years of cinematic history. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve never seen Twelve Angry Men. Nor had I any intention of going to see it onstage to be honest – though the Garrick Theatre is blessed with a lovely intimacy from the Grand Circle, charging 40-odd quid does seem a little optimistic, but the lovely people at Bargain Theatre (worth following on Twitter too) came through with a deal that saw those seats reduced to £16 and so I took the bait.
Playing out in real time, the play follows the deliberations of an all-white 12-man jury on a hot and sticky New York afternoon in the 1950s as they are tasked with delivering a verdict on a murder case which has seen a young black man be accused of stabbing his father. But what seems like an open-and-shut case becomes more complicated when the initial vote indicates 11 consider him guilty and 1 considers there to be reasonable doubt, and so the debate begins as each side tries to win the absolute majority it needs to prevail. In doing so, the various men – all only known by their juror numbers, never their names – reveal how their prejudices and presumptions have guided them as they decide whether to send this man to the electric chair.
As they thrash through the finer details of the case and interrogate the notion of reasonable doubt, it is impossible to ignore the contrivances needed to keep the action firmly in the jury room – the defence counsel were clearly having a bad day in the office given what they apparently missed. And there’s something schematic in the way in which the momentum in the room inexorably shifts, there is no doubt at all about how the whole thing will play out from the off as the artfully pensive Martin Bell-suited Juror 8 starts sowing his seeds of doubt. Martin Shaw is certainly good in this role but it’s awfully hard not to see him as just slightly sanctimonious at times.
But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy myself somewhat at the same time as identifying this creakiness. Michael Pavelka’s set revolves its giant table to show the wheel of justice in (slow-)motion and has the unexpected benefit of showing you exactly where we are in the play (it makes one full circuit by the end). And it also helps director Christopher Haydon allow his cast their moment each to shine, whether Miles Richardson’s virulent working-class racism, Robert Vaughn’s elder statesman ultimately bringing his experience to bear or the reasoned if shouty determination of Jeff Fahey. Legal dramas may have come a long way since Reginald Rose wrote this but there’s something of the old-school charm about Twelve Angry Men (but keep your eyes out for a deal).