If you’ve never seen it, 12 Angry Men can be a bit of a tough sell on paper – a jury sits in a hot stuffy room and discusses their verdict on a murder trial. You never see the courtroom trial, you never meet the alleged murderer, you don’t hear from the lawyers. They never leave the room, there are no new characters, the scene never changes … And yet it’s compelling, intense and utterly absorbing.
Following a recording-breaking West End season, this powerful production is now touring, and this week comes to Lighthouse Poole. The production stars Jason Merrells (Casualty, Emmerdale), Gray O’Brien (Coronation Street, Peak Practice), Tristan Gemmill (Coronation Street, Casualty), Michael Greco (EastEnders), Ben Nealon (Soldier Soldier) and Gary Webster (Minder, Family Affairs) among the all-star ensemble.
The minimalist set, with its gently rotating central table smartly representing time passing, is effective and atmospheric. The room is tired and the lighting is oppressive; both do a good job of instilling the claustrophobia of the original. Purists will perhaps be a little surprised by the comedic breaks in tension – though they were welcomed by much of the audience, they do make for a difference in momentum. Laughs aside, here lies all the nuanced social introspection you would expect.
Jason Merrells plays pivotal juror eight, the single quiet voice of opposition, asking for just a little more thought and discussion. Slowly we uncover the crime, break down the evidence … and reveal the chasms that separate the seemingly-united 11 by class, religion, age, arrogance and ignorance.
The audience is held in the grip of the close atmosphere of the heat-stricken room – the break for intermission caused a spontaneous gasp for air by many in the audience, and the seamless rejoining in the second half immersed the audience instantly where they left off.
The unpleasantness rises and falls as we meet and dismiss case (and character) points. There are no names, and few personal details are obliquely revealed. Yet we come to love one, detest another, regard a third with pity, a fourth with frustrated fury …
The sense of menace created especially by the unravelling of juror number three, played by Tristan Gemmill, unrelentingly increases – but for me he was in the end perhaps just a little too angry? The powerful final scene might have been even more impactful if he hadn’t already been shouting for the last five minutes.
However, the payoff is the quiet as he’s handed his coat. It is utterly deafening.
Written in 1954, the relevance of the 70 year old plot is sadly striking. We all have ingrained prejudices. The need for civic responsibility and social justice. The importance of listening, of being open-minded, of looking for the truth rather than the mob’s easy answer. And the simple importance of quietly but firmly standing up for what is right.
12 Angry Men is on at Lighthouse Poole until Saturday 27th, with matinees Wednesday and Saturday.