'Twelve Angry Men' at The Richmond Theatre

A thought-provoking play with modern resonance, says Anne Flaherty

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Twelve Angry Men is a play that centres around the question of truth and how difficult it is to have objectivity unless you are prepared to challenge your own prejudices.

The question of an all-white, all-male jury, deciding the fate of one black man was something that bothered writer Reginald Rose and which he addresses in this play which visited the Richmond Theatre last week following a successful run in the West End and around the UK, where it is currently touring.

Image;Anton Belmonte

Reprising the role made famous in the 1957 Sidney Lumet film adaption by actor Henry Fonda, Tom Conti plays Juror Number Eight, the man prepared to stand out from the crowd and question the received version of events. The part calls for an actor who can display a range of emotion, from restrained anger to angry outbursts but more importantly, someone with great integrity and powers of pursuasion. And here Conti does not disappoint. He is reliably perfect as the sceptical and humane juror who places a roadblock in the way of summary justice.

The story begins in 1954- set in a New York court office where a jury of twelve men convenes to give a verdict in a murder trial where a young black man is accused of stabbing his father.

At first it appears to be a clear-cut case. The defendent had been witnessed by a neighbour across the street and had been heard shouting at his father by an elderly man. The murder weapon, a knife, had been recently purchased at a local store and the young man had bragged about buying it to his friends.

As Juror Number Eight (Conti) begins to challenged the accepted version of events, the personalities, backgrounds and prejudices of jury member are revealed. Arguments develop asthey tussle with the decision as to whether the young man is guilty or not. The atmosphere swerves between high emotion and rational argument. The jury room itself becomes a courtroom where evidence is weighed and viewed from several perspectives. As the argument spins from one side to the other, the table in the room where the cast are seated also shifts position almost imperceptibly.

Image-Anton Belmonte

Multi award-winning actor Tom Conti brings his vast experience of theatre to the part, his main concern that justice should be given priority over easy answers- his calm rationality being challeged by the emotional Junor Number Three, played by Andrew Lancel (Frank Foster in Coronation Street ). The play is a rare example of a large cast- the twelve angry men of the title, holding the stage for the duration without any obvious upstaging.

The set transports us to that shabby 1950s court backroom, stifling summer heat and broken fan, with the subway trains careening past and the pressure to make a decision overwhelming as the jurors desperately want to return to everyday life, homes, families, and baseball games waiting.

Twelve Angry Men is a thought-provoking play with a message as important to society in 2015 as it was in the 1950s. This version, directed by Christopher Haydon was a solid ensemble performance (Edward Halsted as Juror 11, a watchmaker, deserves special mention), though I rather thought some of the energy drained out of the performance in the last fifteen minutes. The narrative tension was dissipated so that instead of being an emotional high point of dramatic tension, the finale was unexpectedly flat.

However, in the age of Guantanamo etc, there could hardly be a sharper reminder of the imperatives of justice than this play.

Twelve Angry Men runs at The Richmond Theatre until
May 2nd


April 29, 2015