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Twelve Angry Men

Reginald Rose
Bill Kenwright
The Lowry, Salford

Tom Conti (left) with the cast of Twelve Angry Men Credit: Anton Belmonte
Denis Lill and Paul Beech Credit: Anton Belmonte
Andrew Lancel being held back by the cast of Twelve Angry Men Credit: Pamela Raith

A half-hour delay in starting due to "technical difficulties" for a play that is basically about a dozen people arguing in a single room could have resulted in far more than the number of angry men (and women) specified in the title, but all was soon forgotten as Christopher Haydon's intense, sweaty production grips from the start.

Set in a jury room in New York in the 1950s, twelve jurors decide the fate of a 16-year-old boy accused of stabbing his father to death, for which the mandatory sentence is death by electrocution. In a hot, sweaty room with a storm brewing outside, eleven of these white men are convinced that the boy is guilty and are looking forward to an early finish, but one believes he has a "reasonable doubt".

This is a brilliant set-up to a sequence of discussions both political and personal, the unseen defendant merely acting as a catalyst to get these men to bare their souls to one another. Yes, it's all talk, but if you consider talk as action then this play is a verbal action thriller.

Tom Conti's Juror 8 can initially be dismissed as a wet liberal, talking mainly about the kid's poor background and violent upbringing, but when he moves onto the evidence he picks it apart with the eloquent precision that the boy's lawyer failed to exhibit during the trial.

Denis Lill's Juror 10 speaks only in generalisations about how "these people" from the slums can't be trusted, not seeing the boy at all as an individual, offending Alexander Forsyth's Juror 5 who was brought up in a slum area. Later, he rants about the threat from "these people" who "breed like animals", gloating that now they have "got one of them". There is a strong suggestion of racism, but the boy's colour is never specified.

Andrew Lancel's Juror 3 reveals a more personal motive for his intransigence, his relationship with his own son not quite ending in homicide but certainly with extreme bitterness. Robert Duncan's Juror 4, while holding out until towards the end with his guilty verdict, keeps one of the most balanced views in the room.

There is far more to this play, with strong characters and issues raised of class, social responsibility and personal relationships, perhaps all painted with broad brush strokes but in performance it all works brilliantly and is gripping throughout.

The 13-strong cast (including the police guard on the door) work seamlessly as an ensemble while all having carefully-drawn and distinctive characters. Michael Pavelka's design gives a strong hint of a 1950s civic building, with a jury table that subtly rotates throughout the production, barely noticeably.

It's certainly a political play that leans towards, in American terms, the liberal, cleverly manipulating the audience to see through the generalisations to the personal but within a structure that has all of the build-up and revelations of a murder mystery. What it adds up to is great theatre.

Reviewer: David Chadderton