“Such astute casting goes to show why people go to shows produced by Bill Kenwright.”
What is the surest way to provoke a fist fight amid the genteel splendour of London’s Garrick Club? You could start by loudly telling the one about the Earl of Grantham and the absolutely fabulous Fashion Director – that gets the members catty quick.
To really get them mad, try suggesting that John Laurie must have been better as Shakespeare’s Lear than as Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer. Tables will upturn, CP will get some poor sod in a headlock, NG’s eyes will be rolling as he bellows “We’re aul doom’d” in his best attempt at a Hebridean accent, the ghosts of JMB and AAM will appear, searching out suitable opportunities to glass someone with a broken bottle.
Then again, if you really want the furniture flying through the Irving Room, declare that Tom Conti is the definitive Jeffrey Bernard (which he is – so shut it before I shove this portrait of Dame Nellie Melba where the footlights don’t shine).
Seeing Conti in the titular role of Keith Waterhouse’s masterpiece, and as Joseph in Jesus My Boy, defined my ‘90s adolescent infatuation with theatre. Would seeing him tread the boards years later be like sneakily looking up the school totty on Facebook, only to discover they’ve now got more kids than teeth? No. Conti’s as awesome as ever. As the enigmatic naysayer in Reginald Rose’s jury room classic he does for the part of Juror 8 what Costas did for Shirley Valentine on that Greek boat. Conti lightly leads a heavyweight cast through a meaty narrative.
It’s the story of 12 strangers deciding the outcome of a murder trial. The wheels of justice are in motion, the defendant is on his way to the chair, when a lone voice drops a little doubt into a sea of certainty.
Originally shown on US television in 1954, the script of Twelve Angry Men calls for an up close and personal approach to blocking in order that each juror’s thinking can be established, examined and evolved. Michael Pavelka’s design places much of the action on an imperceptibly revolving platform. Turning the table at which the actors sit neatly enables us to see the tables turned on their characters’ prejudices. The effect is not unlike watching the dog drift off to sleep. His eyes don’t suddenly close, they slide shut slowly, languorously, until suddenly he’s chasing rabbits in the Land of Nod.
I’ve been lucky enough to see David Calvitto catch his share of rabbits at Fringes past. The grace and insight which are his trademarks are perfectly suited to Rose’s Juror 2 – the quiet man who up with this will no longer put. Alexander Forsyth (Juror 5, young) and Paul Beech (Juror 9, old) bookend the group’s age spectrum. Beech’s conversion to doubt is calm and collected, while Foryth’s is the opposite. Perhaps the appeal of Twelve Angry Men endures because it provides a showcase for such raw and careworn performances each alike in dignity.
Dignity is not high on the list of words used to describe bigoted Juror 10. Having lambasted the dignity of others in a hate-fueled tirade directed at the unseen defendant, the advocate for a lynching is hung out to dry when basic decency takes a stand. Included in Denis Lill’s unflinchingly delivery of the part is a degree of pathos unexpected as it is thought-provoking. With this powerful and emotive character study Lill digs out the intellectual foundations on which the final scenes will later rest.
This British production of an American classic superbly catches the rampant class conflict of a drama in which every juror is a king, but no man wears a crown. When Andrew Lancel (Juror 3, the opinionated businessman) locks horns with Mark Carter (as Juror 6, the blue-collar house painter) the tension is ratcheted up notch by furious notch. Such astute casting goes to show why people go to shows produced by Bill Kenwright (an Honorary Prof at TVU when Pater was VC).
Equally inspired is Edward Halsted (Juror 11, the new American). The decision not to reimagine the play in a more contemporary setting opens the goal for Halsted to strike at the original post-war, Cold War totalitarian milieu. Although my companion reckons he’s more Pete Campbell than Don Draper, Gareth David-Lloyd (Juror 12) is the Mad Menic icing on the period cake.
If there is a broad range of acting styles on show, there is also serious depth. Robert Duncan (Juror 4) is the shadow contrasting Conti’s light. Duncan’s not the shouty one, he’s not the juror with the biggest chip on his shoulder, but he is the one Conti needs to beat. Juror 4 is a self-assured stockbroker who doesn’t have a ball game to watch (as does the fabulously flighty Sean Power, Juror 7). He’s got all the time in the world. Conti’s character grinds down the others, the mortar, but it’s Duncan’s guy whose opposition is solid. The cast photo adorning the theatre programme and posters suggest to expect Conti v. Lancel. In actuality it’s Conti v. Duncan, theirs is the dynamic around which the rest orbit.
My aunt (the one who chews broken bottles and makes saltwater crocodiles cry real tears) shows Twelve Angry Men in her RE classes. It’s a morality play in which you might be watching an innocent man set free, or a juvenile delinquent get away with murder. It might be about frailty or egotism, certainty or doubt. What this production absolutely is, to paraphrase Duncan in Drop The Dead Donkey, is a raft for top quality character acting, several rafts in fact, lashed together into a “pontoon of excellence.”
Reviewer: Dan Lentell (Seen 23 February)