DramaFeaturedNorth East & YorkshireReview

Twelve Angry Men – Grand Opera House, York

Reviewer: Jon Deery

Writer: Reginald Rose

Director: Christopher Haydon

This is a play that really can be summarised in three words.Twelve Angry Menfeatures exactly that – this is a tense thriller in which twelve men berate, debate with, and attack one another, locked in a room, for two hours. Reginald Rose’s classic script, which takes the “courtroom drama” genre out of the courtroom into the less polished and official arena of the jury room, is as compelling as ever. It’s almost criminal to take a classic and murder it with a half-hearted production, or one that strays unconfidently too far from the source material: Christopher Haydon’s Twelve AngryMenis not guilty on both counts.

A young man is on trial for murder. Eleven jury members are absolutely convinced he’s guilty, and are ready to send him to the electric chair. One man wants to talk it over first, before making such a deadly decision. What follows is inevitably tense, high-stakes and full of flare-ups. Sharp dialogue helps to diffuse some of this tension, with more witty one-liners than many comedies. As the men talk things over, they come to find that the evidence is more complicated than it first appeared…

With a script as tight as Rose’s, it might seem difficult to get wrong. But when a director is juggling twelve characters, all of whom share the stage for the entire time, and when each of those characters are so similar, the production relies entirely on subtle differences between performances and clear staging of sequences. Haydon is up to the task, making the most of the stage and the props; he manages to enhance the misdirection that regularly occurs in the script, pulling attention in one direction before revealing that the real action is happening elsewhere. The warm orange-tinged lighting adds to a sense of rising heat, in a way that Sidney Lumet’s black-and-white film version couldn’t.

Michael Pavelka’s set design contributes to the play’s atmosphere well. The ridiculously-oversized ceiling fan hanging motionless above the room adds to a sense of futility, the dark and rainy windows in the background, the tiny bathroom where factional disputes can break off from the main tableaux, the scales of Lady Justice that cover the stage before the play begins, all serve functions in producing the mood, the dynamism, and the themes of this production.

But the real test of this play is: can the performers, each of whom plays a nameless “angry man”, still deliver unique and memorable individual performances?

Fortunately, this cast can. From Mark Heenehan’s pedantic Juror 4 to Gray O’Brien’s hateful Juror 10, distinct performances abound. Michael Greco is hilarious as Juror 7, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the harmless old Juror 2 (Paul Lavers), and Kenneth Jay animates Juror 11 with a wealth of little eccentricities and subtle mannerisms that serve this intellectual character well. Jason Merrells is an obvious standout as Juror 8, the original dissenter, carrying the role with charismatic thoughtfulness and cheeky provocation. Tristan Gemmill’s take on Juror 3, the main antagonist of the drama, feels a little strained, though – for the majority of the play, Gemmill marvellously captures the smug, self-centred character – but in the play’s bigger emotional moments, the performance falters.

Casting Samarge Hamilton as Juror 5 adds a wonderful extra level of depth to the play’s potent satire on prejudice and racism; at the centre of the story is a Puerto Rican boy on trial, and Juror 5 objects to the bigoted notions from other jury members that the boy’s upbringing would inevitably lead him to murder. With this casting decision, Juror 5’s descriptions of life in a dangerous urban neighbourhood now draw from the reality for Black people in the redlined areas of the 1940s and 50s, bringing more of the themes from the courtroom into the jury room and compounding the heavy atmosphere. Hamilton’s performance is nuanced, understated and only explodes when it really needs to – a highlight of this production.

So here’s the verdict: at a time when we increasingly presume guilt or innocence, where people are becoming polarised and isolated and there’s not much space for talking things over,Twelve Angry Men feels just as fresh and relevant as it was in the 50s. The virtues of thinking twice, of allowing evidence to change your mind, of overcoming prejudice, and of working with others to achieve a common goal even when their personality clashes with your own, are all proven through careful and precise writing. Christopher Haydon confidently constructs a production that grapples with the dense script, and does so while moving it into new territory. It’s guilty of nothing but provocation, and you can’t change my mind about that…

Runs until 18 May 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Knife-sharp drama

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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