Review by Rosie Holmes
Twelve Angry Men is a courtroom drama known by most from the 1957 film adaptation starring Henry Fonda. Since the film’s release, there have been several stage productions, with the last UK run being at The Garrick Theatre in 2023-14. The play is now firmly back in session, stopping off at Richmond Theatre as part of its UK tour. Twelve men decide the fate of an accused man, but what exactly would my verdict be?
The play tells the story of a jury of twelve men as they debate the conviction or acquittal of a young man accused of murder based upon reasonable doubt. As an audience member we are plunged straight into the deliberations, having heard none of the trial and basing all of our knowledge upon the twelve men’s accounts and opinions, with which we learn there can never be an absence of personal prejudice. Juror 8 is the only member of the group to vote not guilty and from this the narrative arc unfolds as we see Juror 8, played by Freddie Merells carefully and considerately unpick the case and explore the evidence and the existence of reasonable doubt.
Despite having been written almost 70 years ago, the writing is still incredibly relevant and packs just as much of a punch today, with an incredibly intelligent and engaging script. The text explores morals, compassion and humanity. All twelve men are from different walks of life, from the stockbroker, the nervous and needy advertising man, to the young man brought up in a similarly troubled neighbourhood to the accused. This allows the story to be explored from all sides and all the nuances of one's’ perceptions of and views on the crime to be neatly pulled out in a fast-paced script.
This is, by all intents and purposes, an ensemble piece, all twelve jurors being present on stage from beginning to end, either in the jury room or the men’s toilets next door. All jurors are therefore required to be ‘busy’ at all times which gives the audience a further insight to their characters’ psyches, whether it be the nervous doodling, the attentive notetaker or the hyperactive comic relief coming from Juror 7, played by Michael Greco. All twelve work together, allowing each character to reveal deeper layers to their characters rather than just as the numbers they’re referred to as in the programme. It’s s also worth a mention that, in an extremely wordy script, all members of the cast did not miss a beat, even if the New York accents did occasionally drop.
There were some standout performances amongst the group. Jason Merrells took on the role of Juror 8, a role made famous by Henry Fonda in 1957. Assured and emphatic, he was utterly compelling, giving credence to the idea the play revolves around, compassion and logic can in fact defy intolerance and anger. Merrells is the perfect comparison to Tristan Gemmil’s Juror 3. Hot-headed throughout, he displays a man full or rage, but also heartache. Perhaps, his performance was slightly too exaggerated, but I imagine this was a directorial choice, rather than a reflection of his ability, as he certainly displayed his competencies as the character’s personal arc evolved.
Set and costume design is by Michael Pavelka and is an undoubted success. The piece takes place in just one room, on an extremely hot summer’s day, which allows for a claustrophobic atmosphere that adds to the increasing tension as the stakes of the jury’s decision is clear. Pavelka creates a 1950s courtroom, using the men’s toilets an effective breakout space, to allow for smaller conversations to happen between factions of the group. The centrepiece of Pavelka’s set is a revolving table, although I didn’t actually notice it move at all, it rotates so slowly. However, the effect was incredibly effective in mimicking the minute hand of a clock, but also allowing for every member of the jury to have their moment centre stage, something the writing also illustrates. Lighting by Chris Davey also adds to the rising tension, as bolts of lightening flash through the windows.
The piece is utterly compelling and is a real triumph in storytelling. It would be amiss however, not to mention the lack of diversity in the cast. While the cast’s gender and ethnicity are largely led by the narrative itself, many since productions have successfully allowed for much greater diversity in the piece. Given that the play’s examinations of humanity are made stronger by the fact each juror is from a different walk of life, it is hard not to argue this aspect of the piece could not have been made all the more impactful with a more diverse cast.
Still, Twelve Angry Men is thrilling and intelligent, a wonderful ensemble works brilliantly together, alongside some extremely clever set pieces to create an utterly compelling piece of theatre. It is there without any reasonable doubt, that this show is a simply fantastic production of a classic tale.
Twelve Angry Men plays at Richmond Theatre until 10th February 2024, more information about tour dates and tickets can be found here - Twelve Angry Men – 2024 UK and Ireland Tour - Bill Kenwright Limited
Photos by Jack Merriman