DramaReviewSouth West

The Verdict – Theatre Royal, Plymouth

Director: Michael Lunney

Playwright: Margaret May Hobbs (based on the book by Barry Reed)

Reviewer: Helen Tope 

Down on his luck and on the ropes, Boston lawyer Frank Galvin needs a win. Living case by case after nearly being disbarred, Galvin struggles to keep his career on track – such as it is.

We are far from the chic, glass-fronted offices of Corporate America. Frank’s office is rented – and about to default. It’s evident – from the piles of crumpled papers on his desk, and the half-empty bottle of whiskey kept handy – that this lawyer has taken a few wrong turns.

But behind Galvin’s line in self-deprecation, is a mind that’s sharp and ready to strike. We meet Frank, as he ponders his latest case. A 27-year-old woman, Deborah-Ann Doherty, is given the wrong type of anesthetic during labour. The mistake, made by St Catherine Laboure Hospital, leaves her in a vegetative state, dependent on 24-hour-care.

Her mother presses Frank to go and visit her daughter in the hospital. Frank is reluctant until he is visited in his office by Bishop Brophy. The Church, owners of the hospital, are keen to settle quickly and quietly. They offer Doherty’s family $300,000 – and they offer Frank a job on their legal team.

Frank’s instincts are riled, and he visits Doherty in the hospital. Her condition is far worse than he had imagined. She is fragile and on the edge of life. Frank refuses the cheque and finds his desire to fight.

The Verdict presents itself as more than a morality tale. The lines of good and bad may at first seem cleanly drawn, as the establishment – medical, ecclesiastical and legal – meet in oak-paneled rooms. Power and privilege control the infrastructure of Boston, and Frank seems destined to lose. On top of this, Frank’s personal life is about to implode. Married or separated, depending on who he’s talking to, Galvin initiates an affair with bar waitress Donna (played by Josephine Rogers).

As we move into the courtroom, what emerges is not the David and Goliath battle that was set up for us at the start. Important details – overlooked, misread – begin to alter the narrative. The path to justice may not be as clear-cut as we first thought.

Margaret May Hobbs’ adaptation of Barry Reed’s novel deftly avoids all the courtroom cliches. A work of real sophistication, The Verdict, which dates from 1980, vies for attention alongside new drama as The Good Fight, where the political and the legal start to become indistinguishable. As the world-weary Galvin, Ian Kelsey brings us a character with just enough left in the tank to make you root for him. The daytime boozing may be from another era, but the pitch black humour and the joy and flow of the hustle still feels contemporary.

As Frank’s mentor, Moe Katz, Denis Lill is fabulous to watch. Barry Reed’s treatment of marginalised characters – including Lionel Thompson, the witness called on by Galvin to bolster his case – is curiously prescient. The sneering cross-examination of Dr Thompson’s credentials is not only of its time but by extension, suggests that very little has changed. Thompson, a black doctor, would no doubt face discrimination on some level today.

The heart of the legal battle – a decent settlement for a family left devastated by medical error – is a very easy dilemma to side with. What The Verdict does instead, is ask us to consider whether the law is fit to deal with such cases – or whether a result (win or lose) is all a game of chance. As we learn the outcome for Deborah-Ann, the resolution is left far from clear.

Runs until Saturday 25 May | Image: Contributed

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A work of real sophistication

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