Twelve strangers are locked in a small backroom in 1950s New York charged with deciding whether a sixteen-year old boy murdered his father. The case against him seems implacable and all these men have to do is unanimously agree on a verdict. When they enter the room eleven of them are wholeheartedly convinced of the boy’s guilty and are eager to get back to their busy lives. The final man, Juror Number 8, is not so sure and, with a life in their hands, insists they at least discuss it before condemning him.
During the next few hours Juror 8, played by Martin Shaw, begins to dismantle the evidence, planting doubt it one mind after the other and exposing the prejudices of his companions. This is an excellent production of Reginald Rose’s original teleplay, full of tension, drama and insight, drawing each man into the spotlight. Christopher Haydon’s direction cleverly balances moments of serious stillness as characters confront each other, with the frenetic frustration of people trapped in a small space from which there is no escape. Choreographing the individual movements of twelve people around the stage is no easy task, yet each one is carefully placed in the spotlight, foreground and background, as the conversation develops.
This is helped by Michael Pavelka’s design – a shabby and claustrophobic space, with a central table that rotates as the action progresses, allowing the audience not only to take in each juror, but shifting our perspective as we too see the arguments circle the character’s minds, dissolving their certainties. It also acts as a ticking clock for the performance, ratcheting-up the tension – time is repeatedly referenced but we know once the table is returned to its original 12 and 6 position, the decision will have been made. And not once did I see it move, so expertly is our attention directed to the dialogue and action.
It’s also not easy to create so many distinct characters, with every single one of them almost permanently on stage. This is one of the great successes of this production – every man is at once anonymous (we never learn their names) and yet separate. Some we get to know immediately whilst others only come to the fore later in the play – and any one of them could be us in the same situation. This is a fine ensemble cast and although it has some star names – Robert Vaughan, Martin Shaw, Jeff Fahey and Nick Moran – there’s not a weak link to be found.
I do love a good bit of dramatic tension and Twelve Angry Men is loaded with it. It has lots to say about the way our preconceptions guide us, the nature of justice and how the surface of things can so easily be wrong. Added to that a great cast, shrewd direction and a brilliantly tense conclusion it makes for a gripping , thoughtful and highly recommended trip to the theatre.
Twelve Angry Men is at the Garrick Theatre until 1st March and ticket prices start at £19.50. Last Minute tickets were £22.50 for the stalls.