Reviews West End & Central Published 13 November 2013

Twelve Angry Men

Garrick Theatre ⋄ Booking until 1st March 2014

Lacking in heat.

Natasha Tripney

Twelve men holed up in a room without a working fan on what we’re told is one of the hottest days of the year. The air should be treacle thick, tempers fraying, necks reddening and shirt sleeves darkening. The atmosphere should be uncomfortably close, like a damp handkerchief over your mouth – it should reek – and yet there’s very little sense of that level of sweat-box intensity in this new West End version of Reginald Rose’s classic jury room drama; despite all the caged pacing that goes on there’s little sense of steam and stress at all. We’re told how hot it is, more than once, but we never feel it, not really.

First written for television and then made famous via Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film, this is in some ways the prefect chamber piece, a celebration of the power of the lone voice, of a single juror’s capacity to make his fellow men – volatile, impatient, distracted, bigoted, and, yes, angry – rethink their stance, reassess the quickness with which they are willing to sentence an underprivileged sixteen-year-old kid to death.

The film is tense and intelligent, using the jury room as microcosm, but much of that focus gets lost on the draughty Garrick stage and, given too much room to float and roam, the whole experience ends up feeling a little formulaic and by-the-numbers, the men a collection of types rather than characters. There’s the shouty, hot-headed one and the intelligent, reserved one and the nervous one and the splenetic, racist one and the one who just wants to get the hell out of there because he has tickets to the game.

Some of the performers are better able to round out and humanise their archetypes than others: Robert Vaughan has a glinting charm as the elderly juror whose frailness belies a quick wit and openness of mind, even if he does lose his way slightly towards the end of things, getting tripped and tangled by his lines during a pivotal moment. Jeff Fahey is memorable too, a kettle of menace and bluster as the most emotionally complex of those arguing hard for a ‘guilty’ vote. But Martin Shaw is rather too comfortable and confident, a little bit too easy peasy Judge John Deedy, in his role as the juror who speaks out not because he believes the boy – who is either black, or Asian, or in some way ‘other’, it’s never explicitly stated – is innocent, but because it’s the right and true thing to do, to value this boy’s life and the power they have over it. There’s never much sense of him questioning himself and his actions at any point.

Christopher Haydon’s production – originally staged at the Birmingham Rep – is handsome in its design and contains some nicely observed details. The subtle revolve of the table as the mood in the room shifts allows for a change in sightlines and adds some visual interest to an otherwise potentially static piece. Some of the more telling moments are silent: the different ways in which the men wash up in the adjacent bathroom, for example, provides a neat way of enhancing and reflecting their characters. But the sense of jeopardy and tension is limited. There’s little of the needed pre-storm heat, the volatility of the shaken soda can.

And yet, for all that, the messages that underscore the writing, about taking one’s social responsibility seriously and the need to think for oneself, to value and empathise with one’s fellow man, still sing out and it makes an interesting piece to watch so soon after The Scottsboro Boys, both pieces in their own way presenting unpalatable truths about race and the American justice system.

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

Twelve Angry Men Show Info


Directed by Christopher Haydon

Written by Reginald Rose

Cast includes Martin Shaw, Jeff Fahey, Nick Moran, Robert Vaughn, Luke Shaw , David Calvitto, Paul Antony-Barber, Ed Franklin, Robert Blythe, Miles Richardson , Martin Turner , Owen O'Neil , Jason Riddington

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