Twelve Angry Men

Reginald Rose
Bill Kenwright Ltd
Grand Opera House, York

Listing details and ticket info...

The cast Credit: Jack Merriman
Juror 4 (Mark Heenehan) and Juror 3 (Tristan Gemmill) Credit: Jack Merriman
Juror 8 (Jason Merrells) Credit: Jack Merriman

Originally written as a television drama in 1954 and then adapted for the stage the following year, Reginald Rose’s iconic legal drama Twelve Angry Men received its most famous incarnation in 1957 when the director Sidney Lumet brought it to the big screen.

I must confess from the outset that I am a huge fan of the film adaptation starring Henry Fonda and have probably seen it over a dozen times. Given the all-round brilliance of the Lumet version—according to IMDb, it’s the fifth greatest / most beloved film of all time—it’s difficult to discuss this touring stage production, directed by Christopher Haydon, without making invidious comparisons; nevertheless, I will try.

With the exception of a few bits of additional dialogue, the play almost exactly resembles the film in terms of character and plot. On a hot summer’s day, twelve New Yorkers gather in a jury room to debate the innocence of an 18-year-old man accused of murdering his abusive father.

Given the wealth of evidence (including two eyewitnesses), coupled with an inadequate defence counsel, the accused looks like a goner. However, one man, Juror 8 (Jason Merrells), takes a more nuanced view, and slowly manages to win the other jury members to his side.

For the first twenty minutes of this production, during which the jury members introduce themselves to the audience and size each other up, I found myself slightly bored, and I worried that the production would wind up being a lifeless retread of Lumet’s superb film.

Thankfully, once the discussion of the case kicks in, the superb plot mechanics of Rose’s script come to the fore, and I found the production genuinely engaging. The narrative of Twelve Angry Men has been replicated and parodied in so many inventive ways that I can understand why some audience members find it old-fashioned and unconvincing. For me, however, Rose’s play continues to be fresh and arresting.

Given the dramatic heft of the 1957 film, whose ensemble included three Oscar winners (Henry Fonda, Ed Begley and Martin Balsam) and the original Willy Loman (Lee J Cobb), it would be unfair to expect this level of brilliance from Haydon’s production. Despite some wandering accents, the ensemble deliver well-modulated performances, skilfully capturing the escalating tension of the jurors.

Michael Pavelka’s pleasingly detailed set helps to immerse the audience in the fraught atmosphere of the jury room, and it was a clever idea to rotate the table as this enables us to view the characters’ ongoing discussion from different perspectives.

A gripping courtoom drama with a social conscience, Twelve Angry Men continues to enthral audiences because of the way it combines deductive reasoning with psychological illumination.

Reviewer: James Ballands

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