Twelve Angry Men – March 2014

Experience: 8/10

By Reginald Rose

Directed by Christopher Haydon

Venue: Garrick Theatre

Date: Saturday 15th March 2014

We had been looking forward to seeing this production for a while. A recent house move had put many of our usual activities on the back burner, but the extended run allowed us a chance to sneak in a visit. It was well worth the effort. From the pre-show noises of New York City to the final confrontation and resolution, the performance kept us gripped and entertained, and as usual the stage version seemed to be funnier than the film; I certainly laughed more this time round.

At the start, the screen in front of the set showed the arm and scales of the statue of Justice; I’ve never noticed before how tenuous her hold is on those scales. We heard the noises of city traffic, the louder rumble of the El train and a general background rumble. Through the translucent screen we could see part of the set, and there were no surprises: a table with chairs. Steve spotted that there didn’t appear to be a ceiling, so presumably we would be able to see the surrounding city during the play.

In fact, once the screen went up we could see that there were no walls either, just girders to delineate the corners of the room plus doors, windows and, on the left hand side, the washbasins of the men’s room (no actual water – they just mimed). Behind the back ‘wall’ was a cityscape, with a new building going up on the right and other tall buildings all around, although we were looking down on some of the courtroom’s neighbours. The jurors’ table was on a revolve, which moved so slowly it took both of us a long time to spot it; for the most part the table just seemed to jump round from one position to the next so that it did a complete turn during the course of the play. There were lights and a fan dangling from the ceiling and some other chairs plus a water cooler, but apart from this meagre inventory it was down to the actors to do their work.

The play began with the jurors in two rows at the front of the stage, still behind the screen but lit from above. The front row had benches to sit on while the second row stood behind. The judge (or at least, his voice) gave them their final instructions and then they trooped in single file round the front of the screen and along to the jury room, where the guard took a roll call and locked them in.

It didn’t take long for some of the individual characters to emerge, with a few laughs coming early. With so many of the jury convinced the young man was guilty, there was a light-heartedness about the room, plus juror 9 (Robert Vaughan) was in the men’s room for quite some time so it took a little while for the foreman to call everyone together. Sitting in number order, the foreman was at the head of the table and juror 8 (Martin Shaw) was front left, making his dissenting vote very clear.

I won’t go through all the details of the deliberations – it was the same script as the film – but the key points mostly worked very well on stage. The second flick knife didn’t stay upright when thrown into the table, and the layout of the apartment wasn’t big enough to be worth showing to the audience, but the sense of the prosecution’s case unravelling was still there, and the tensions became stronger with juror 3’s intemperate outbursts (Jeff Fahey). Having used the young man’s threat, “I’m going to kill you”, as part of his justification for voting guilty, juror 3 was rash enough to use a similar phrase when he physically attacked juror 8. Other jurors held him back, and as juror 3 realised the implication of what he’d said, juror 8 turned the screw by saying “you’re not really going to kill me, are you?” It was a telling moment, and a good place to take the interval.

They restarted from the same place, with juror 3 still being restrained by the others, and the guard came in to see what the noise was about. The arguments continued, a thunderstorm broke and rain washed down the windows at the back, and after juror 10 aired his racist views he was firmly put in his place and took no more part in the proceedings (other than to change his vote to ‘not guilty’). Miles Richardson did a good job of showing such an unpleasant character in his full inhumanity. I was a little concerned when the ‘not guilty’s started calling the young man innocent in the later stages – the presumption of innocence is all very well, but up to then they’d been focusing on ‘reasonable doubt’ – but by the end it still felt right that the jury came to their unanimous verdict.

After giving us a strong display of juror 3’s emotional breakdown, the jury reached its conclusion and the others began putting their jackets back on and trooping out of the room. Juror 3 was still standing at the front of the stage, drained by what he’d been through, and juror 8 went to the back to get their jackets. There was a long pause before they left together, then juror 8 turned back briefly to close the door. Lights. And the crowd went wild. Martin Shaw and Jeff Fahey had a hug before taking their first bows – those two parts are very dependent on each other – and there were lots of people standing for the second curtain call.

We were very glad we’d managed to squeeze this one in. While the film possibly has more tension, the stage version has the benefit of more humour, and the characters are better developed as well since we can see them all of the time, not just when the director chooses to show them to us (admittedly, we are talking about Sidney Lumet). Every part was played to perfection, and although we knew what would happen, there’s a magic in live performance which overcomes that knowledge and creates genuine suspense.

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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