Clive Mantle as Frank and Jack Shepherd as Moe
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton
Cheering for the underdog, the little guy, is in our nature, after all, if we are honest, most of us are the little guys, and gals, of course; we are little fish in a tank of sharks as one of the characters in this splendid world-premiere production put it.
The little fishes in this case being a young woman, Deborah Ann Doherty, mother of three, left in a vegetative state during childbirth in a Boston hospital, a shell, kept alive by machinery, and her white knight, lawyer, Frank Galvin, a drunken womanising ambulance chaser scratching a living as a one man band, who takes on the sharks in the guise of the medical establishment and the Catholic Church with their big name, big firm lawyer, the best that money can buy.
Galvin, with no other cases and long memories needed for his last win, and with the taxman and his landlord demanding payment, desperately needs the money from what is a guaranteed, big cheque, out of court settlement – except, when the offer arrives, he decides instead to fight, to take on the sharks, to do something right for once in his messy, miserable life.
Clive Mantle is a splendid Galvin, shambling his way through the play battling his demons from his past, his drinking and the gnawing doubts from taking on a medical malpractice case which is just but, with the hospital and medical profession closing ranks, seemingly unwinnable. A thoroughly believable performance.
Tom Roberts as cocky surgeon Rexford Towler in the witness box with Richard Walsh as biased judge Eldredge Sweeny on the bench
Then there is Jack Shepherd as Moe Katz, Galvin’s mentor and ex-partner, a 75-year-old Jewish lawyer with a heart condition who gave Galvin the case as a favour to give him a big payday on the settlement to help him out, never even considering Galvin would go to court. Even though his doctor advised him against excitement and most other things it seems, he ends up helping out. Another lovely performance.
And for the defence we have Richard Walsh as Bishop Brophy, who sees no wrongdoing, just an act of God, as he tries to settle amicably for the Boston Diocese Catholic run hospital. Failure brings in the hospital’s pit bull, J Edward Concannon, played with assured arrogance by Peter Harding, a lawyer who has yet to lose a case and will do anything, above or below board, to keep his record intact.
Walsh also plays the judge, Eldredge Sweeney – a conflict of interest there surely, your honour - a former colleague of Concannon, who openly favours the defence, making Galvin’s job even harder.
At the centre of the affair are the doctors with Walsall actor Tom Roberts as Rexford Towler MD, the chief of surgical gynaecology at St Catherine Laboure Hospital and the doctor in charge when Debbie arrives in the operating theatre in labour. Roberts gives us a supremely confident surgeon who clearly resents being questioned and having to explain himself and his actions to lesser beings – such as a jury.
On trial with him is Daniel Jonathan Crowley MD, the chief of anaesthesiology, who made, or didn’t make, the fatal error that left Debbie a vegetable, played with that degree of self-satisfaction shown by someone who knows he is untouchable by Michael Lunney, who also plays the Irish bar owner Eugene in Galvin’s local watering hole. He also directed and designed the set as well as running Middle Ground, the play’s production company – busy man.
We have Okon Jones as the aging expert for hire Lionel Thompson MD, Galvin’s expert witness, or rather the only doctor he could find to speak out against the defendants, who, with no real speciality standing in any field, may be right but has a rough ride as his opinions are belittled by Concannon.
Peter Harding as defence lawyer J Edward Concannon
There is Veronica Quillicgan as nurse Mary Rooney, on duty in the theatre on the fatal night in 1976, who knows more than she will say but loyalty to the hospital and her view that a big payout will not bring Debbie back, outweighs her need to tell all.
Nuala Walsh is Debbie’s widowed mother, struggling to both bring up Debbie’s three children in a tiny apartment and pay for her proper care, devastated when she finds Galvin has turned down what she sees as a fortune.
As witnesses vanish or refuse to talk Galvin is battling the odds but finds some comfort, and a little romance, with Donna, played by Cassie Bancroft, the new waitress on maternity cover in Eugene’s bar, perhaps an unlikely sexual encounter on the face of it, old drunk, young divorcee, but is Donna more than she seems, we ask.
And then there is the admitting nurse Natalie Stampanatto played by Hanna Timms, who vanished off the face of the earth after the childbirth incident. Finding her was Galvin’s only break and her evidence is explosive enough to shatter Concannon’s confidence as he fights tooth and nail to exclude it.
Courtrooms are natural theatre, but, as anyone who has sat through a long trial can tell you, can be soporific between moments of high drama, and director Lunney has paced the build up in tension nicely, setting the scene in the operating theatre, casting doubts on the hospital record and having a judge who disrupt Galvin’s cross examinations at every turn.
The little guys are drowning but will they find a life raft . . . head to the Grand and find out.
Barry Reed’s novel became a successful film in 1982, starring Paul Newman, James Mason and Charlotte Rampling, and now Middle Ground have brought the gritty tale to the stage with Margret May Hobb’s adaptation which, of necessity, has reduced the number of characters and simplified the story to make it work on the stage, and work it does.
Lunney and his Middle Ground do not do productions by half, thus we have a cast of 15, which is big for any play and a splendid set with a first act of Galvin’s run down office on one side, Eugene’s bar on the other and Concannon’s prep room in the middle.
The second act is a very solid looking courtroom. Cleverly the audience become the jury so the cast as witnesses or advocates address us directly.
Haunting Irish music from Lynette Webster marks scene changes and there is some clever sound effects of background chatter and noise which are enough to animate scenes without causing a distraction.
This is the final week of a long run of what is an excellent and gripping production – even if you remember the ending from the film. It's a theatrical treat well worth seeing. To 06-05-17.