Twelve Angry Men is a steadily paced but strongly acted production at Richmond Theatre and continuing to tour the UK
“What are you so goddamn polite about?”
Christopher Haydon’s production of Twelve Angry Men has certainly been around, I caught it in the West End over a decade ago now and a successful revival toured the UK late last year, a tour which has now been extended through to May 2024 with Jason Merrells replacing Patrick Duffy in the company. Settling in for the week in the delightful surroundings of Richmond Theatre, we’re once again summoned to bear witness to how justice does, or doesn’t, work.
Set in a New York City courthouse on a swelteringly hot day in 1954, Reginald Rose’s drama begins with the booming voice of a judge instructing a jury to arrive at a verdict in this case of a 16-year-old boy charged with murder. An onerous duty at the best of times but here, conviction means the death sentence so as the 12 men file into a room to arrive at an unanimous verdict and prepare to deliberate, the testosterone hangs heavy in the air.
The characters may all be reduced to a number rather than a name but this doesn’t stop Rose from sketching vibrant thumbnails of mid-twentieth century masculinity in all its department store-hued conventionality (Michael Pavelka’s costume design is pitch-perfect in that respect). Prejudice and preconceptions battle against compassion and consideration as each man interprets the case through his own lens, whether father/son relationships, migrant experience or simply wanting to get the job done quickly because he has a ticket for the game that night.
Jason Merrells’ Juror 8 is the fulcrum of the piece, the lone holdout in the first vote that sees 11 votes for conviction and the way in which he sets about encouraging the others to analyse the evidence before them, and also look at how they’re interpreting it ends up deeply moving. Tristan Gemmill’s brash Juror 3 and Michael Greco’s volatile Juror 7 bring real energy to their dissension and Gray O’Brien lends terrifying credence to the racial implications of the reasoning of the besuited Juror 10.
The slow revolve of Pavelka’s set, beautifully lit by Chris Davey, remains a neat touch, ticking down to the decisive moment and if the pacing of Haydon’s production is a little steady, there’s something to be said for its unflashiness, for the focus on strong storytelling and powerful acting. Making one of the jurors a black man adds a little extratextual frisson and credit to Samarge Hamilton and Kenneth Jay (Jurors 5 and 11) for delivering one of the show’s most powerful moments through the act of wordlessly washing their hands.