No doubts about this verdict

Good men and true: Jeff Fahey (left) with Miles Richardson (far right . . . in more ways that one) with, at the table, Martin Shaw (left), Robert Vaughn, Owen O'Neill, Luke Shaw, David Calvitto, Martin Turner, Paul Antony-Barber, Nick Moran, Robert Blythe and Edward Franklin. Pictures: Robert Day

Twelve Angry Men

Birmingham Rep

*****

REGINALD Rose's taut drama has lost none of its power since it first started life as a television play 59 years ago. (see video link at end of review).

And that power comes perhaps from a very human story, one it is easy for anyone to relate to, a jury charged with deciding whether a 16-year-old boy, facing the electric chair, is guilty of murdering his father.

The twelve jurors all have their own views, their own reasons, their own feelings and their own prejudices to deal with as well as weighing the evidence they have heard.

The play opens at the end of closing arguments as the 12 good men and true are sent away by the judge to make their decision with a warning that a guilty verdict brings a mandatory death sentence.

Michael Pavelka's set of an old-fashioned courthouse jury room, built in the Rep workshops incidentally, right down to fans that don't work and windows that struggle to open, gives an immediate claustrophobic feel and the set's broken ventilation just adds to the feeling of  sweltering, humid New York summer heat, so much so that when a storm breaks in act two and the windows are streaming with rain it comes as a cooling relief.

Martin Shaw as juror 8, the lone dissenting voice as the jury start their deliberations

The jurors are a mixed bunch, a bigoted garage owner, a young man, like the accused, from the projects, an old man, businessmen, an East European immigrant, a baseball fan who just wants to get out so he can go to that night's game and an architect. Some had decided guilt from day one before all the evidence had been heard, others had taken evidence at face value without questioning whether it made sense or not. In short, ordinary people.

We never know names, or indeed do we discover that much about any of the 12 jurors – apart from their assumptions and their prejudices, which say that the kid must be guilty so let's vote and then we can go home.

Except that the architect, juror 8, is not so sure. The open and shut case has not quite been closed for him and Martin Shaw excels in the role quiet man with no axe to grind slowly and logically exposing the flaws in the prosecution argument.

The key to the whole plot is that juror 8 never claims the accused teenager is innocent, he freely admits he does not know, but equally he has not been convinced that he is guilty, the principle of reasonable doubt.

Unlike in Britain, in the USA there are no majority verdicts in capital cases, so at 11-1 the jurors have to convince Shaw's juror 8 of the boy's guilt, or he has the seemingly harder task of sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of the rest of the jury.

While juror 8 sticks to the facts, with forensic analysis casting doubt on witness statements and physical evidence, the other jurors expose deep seated prejudices about “them” and “their sort” from the slums and modern youth with no respect for their parents.

We find juror 7, played by Nick Moran, is somewhat indifferent to the boy's plight. He is a salesman, selling marmalade, and has tickets to that night's baseball game; you get the feeling he will vote whichever way gets him out of the jury room fastest.

Then there is juror 5, played by Edward Franklin, who grew up in the slums and is the only one who can really identify with the accused and his environment, a background that gives him what turns out to be a vital insight into life on the other side of the tracks.

But for the real expert on life and the people from that other side we are indebted to the garage owner, juror 10. Miles Richardson gives us a wonderful study in brash, loud-mouthed bigotry and prejudice, treating the poor and disadvantaged as a different species, us and them – the feeling is that he sees a guilty verdict as merely a means of reducing their number by one. Evidence, or indeed the boy's life, is a minor consideration for him.

While juror 10 wants to reduce the numbers of "them", juror 12 is less certain, the only wavering member of the group. He is an advertising executive, played by Owen O'Neill, who throws in management-speak homilies about front offices and flagpoles as he flits from guilty to not guilty and back again.

Juror 4, (Paul Anthony-Barber), is a businessman who, like juror 8 sticks to the facts while juror 11, (Martin Turner), the naturalised American, is concerned with fairness and democracy - and upholding the US justice system, Juror 6 (Robert Blythe) will listen to arguments while juror 2 (David Calvitto) seems overawed and takes a while to have a view.

The first to change  his mind though is juror 9, the oldest of the group, who makes up for lack of youth with the wisdom and experience that comes with age, rather like the actor who plays him, a member of the Hollywood aristocracy in Robert Vaughan.

The least likely to even consider doubt though is juror 3, a hard nosed businessman played beautifully by Jeff Fahey, a father who is trying more than one case in his mind, reaching a verdict on one accused based on the evidence against another.

Nick Moran as juror 7 and Robert Vaughn as juror 9

Keeping order, of sorts, is the foreman, juror 1, played by Luke Shaw, Martin's son incidentally, who keeps a neutral position mindful of his duties as what is in effect chairman between the two factions, guilty and not guilty.

Christopher Haydon's direction keeps the focus well and despite the fact it is a single set, not a lot happens in terms of action and the plot and storyline are explained before you have even settled in your seat, the production manages a cracking pace, bristling with tension and explosions of emotion all carried along by that natural rhythm that is the driving force of all good productions .

A good script, clear direction and an excellent cast mean that the play might be a period piece but is never dated at all, helped, sadly, by the fact that the prejudice and bigotry Rose chronicled 50 years ago can still be heard today.

The set is lit by Mark Howland who manages to create a bare, 1950's office harshness which all adds to what is an atmospheric staging.

I particularly liked the moving jurors' table, with its 12 seats, which imperceptibly are continuously rotated on a revolving stage so that the long table inches through 180 degrees in act one and then moves through 180 degrees again in act two to return to where it started, reflecting, almost like the old election-night swingometer, how the voting is changing as the debate goes on. Very clever symbolism whoever came up with that one!

The play started life as a one hour play on CBS Studio One in 1954, written by staff writer Rose after he had served on a New York jury but is perhaps best known from the 1957 Henry Fonda film, again written by Rose.

Strangely, for a story set in one fixed scene, it did not make it to the stage until 1964 and it had to wait until 2004 before it made its Broadway debut.

This is a high quality joint production from Birmingham Rep and Bill Kenwright, with a big cast, completed by Jason Riddington as the court guard, and is set for a run at The Garrick Theatre in the West End from November. Catch it before it moves on. To 19-10-13.

Roger Clarke

Just for interest here is the original CBS Studio One episode from 1954 from  The Internet Archive

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