TWELVE ANGRY MEN
By Reginald Rose
Reginald Rose’s masterpiece Twelve Angry Men is often featured in a list of the ten best courtroom dramas of all time. Some experts reckon it’s the best of the lot even though we never see the trial itself – the whole play is set in the jury room.
Over the past 20 years I’ve seen three versions of the stage play. The first was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2003 when Guy Masterson directed a group of comedians as the jurors. At the time it broke Fringe box-office records for drama.
Ten years later I saw a production at Birmingham Rep which featured Martin Shaw and 80-year-old Robert Vaughn. It deserved its standing ovation.
Now Twelve Angry Men is back in session, a 16-venue tour going right through until the middle of May.The plot involves a 16-year-old youth who’s had a tough life being charged with the murder of his violent father. The evidence has been heard; now it’s up to the jury to decide whether the youngster is executed or goes free.
Rose came up with a superb script which is interspersed with humour as the tension in the claustrophobic jury room builds to a climax. All 12 jurors are from different backgrounds and have characteristics which define them, from the man who was brought up in a troubled district just like the one the defendant lived in to the stockbroker checking the price of his shares.
Christopher Haydon who directed the 2013 production in Birmingham – it went on to have a four-month West End run – is again in charge. He knows all the nuances which ensure that this is a great rather than a good show and injects plenty of movement into the play so that it does not degenerate into 12 men sitting at a table having a discussion.
He has an extremely talented cast spearheaded by Jason Merrells as juror eight, the perceptive onlooker who is concerned about sending the youth to the electric chair. Merrells analyses the evidence calmly and methodically, leading to disagreements with some of his fellow jurors who have seemingly unshakeable views about the outcome.
Tristan Gemmill also catches the eye as juror three, a distraught father whose son didn’t live up to his expectations. Gemmill authentically raises his voice exponentially as he fails to convince others of his arguments.
All the cast revel in their roles, particularly when the atmosphere becomes charged and tempers are on the verge of boiling over into violence. A storm outside is more than matched by a storm in the jury room.
The suspense is heightened by the set, designed by Michael Pavelka who fulfilled the same role for the Birmingham Rep production. A table revolves as the action moves from one small group of jurors to another – but spotting it move is as difficult as it is getting the jurors to agree.
All the evidence points to this production of Twelve Angry Men being an open-and-shut case: there’s no need to adjourn to consider your verdict – on the first night at Derby Theatre it was guilty of captivating everyone.
* This review originally appeared on the British Theatre Guide website