TWELVE ANGRY MEN – Garrick, WC2
Storming out of 1950‘s America with a fresh, stunning ensemble, Reginald Rose’s jury-room play hits modern London with the bitter topicality of a knife-blow. Written for TV in 1954 it came to the stage, then the famous Lumet film in 1957. But although its characters are a faithful cross-section of ‘50s white American manhood, it speaks with vigour to any age about anger, prejudice, the power of reason, empathy and honour.
The outline plot (lovingly parodied since in everything from Hancock to Rugrats) is familiar: a jury split eleven to one , a dissenter turning them round to a Not Guilty verdict. The charge is murder: a slum boy of sixteen (clearly, though not explicitly, of an ethnic minority) stabbing his violent father. The judge’s voiceover tells us that the sentence is death if guilty. Bias, lazy conclusions, circumstantial evidence and jurors’ shrugging faith in weak witnesses get gradually dismantled. Attitudes are stripped bare in the pressure-cooker of a sweltering room in thunder season. Individuals, known only by numbers, erupt from enervated silence to voice their real thoughts: notably Miles Richardson’s No.10, with a roaring, violent outbreak which is pure BNP: “These people – born to lie, born to kill, you know what they’re like, breed like animals -!”
Psychologically the play between the men is thrilling enough, and written with marvellous tightness, even humour. but Rose is canny enough to create detective-style cruxes around evidence: the knife, the passing train, the witnesses’ errors. It could risk stasis, despite the outbreaks of near-violence as it heats up, but Christopher Haydon directs with rapid fluidity, assisted by an understated but artful revolving table (Michael Pavelka’s design) as if we were ourselves pacing round to see things from a new angle.
And his cast are beyond praise. Martin Shaw is the dissenter, almost an angel (the final lighting shot on his pale suit suggests it), and plays initially with a gentle steely stillness, letting his tempo rise under perfect control. The American Jeff Fahey as his most bitter opponent plays superbly against him, patrician poise disintegrating into private vengefulness. Robert Vaughn is the wise, calmly thoughtful elder; Ed Franklin touching and troubled as the only one who knows about chaotic lives and knifings from his own background.
But all twelve are tremendous: trapped onstage throughout, each of them – in body-language and expression – immaculately serving the ebb and flow of anger and argument. And – this doesn’t often get said – all credit to commercial theatre, unfairly sneered at for catchpenny values and leg-shows. Producer Bill Kenwright for the second year running (remember last year’s brilliant Three Days In May?) has the bottle to put on a straight play involving nothing but middle-aged blokes sitting at a table on a single set discussing principles. No pretty girls or love interest, just superb drama. Respect!
box office 0844 412 4662 to 1 March