Twelve Angry Men

Note: This review is from 2007

Review by Steve Bennett

It was something of a gamble casting only comedians in the intense jury-room drama 12 Angry Men. But the verdict is in, and it's a triumph.

Sidney Lumet's 1957 Movie version, starring Henry Fonda is a cinematic masterpiece of claustrophobic tension and passionate acting, but whether audiences would accept comics in these most dramatic of roles was always a risk. And whether the comedians themselves were up to it, quite another.

The taught drama is played out on designer Katy Tuxford's stylised grey set (complete with Cluedo-style floorplan), which is more than apt. Above all, this is a play about shades of grey. Not the black and white of guilt and innocence, but the probabilities of 'reasonable doubt'.

The characters, too, are of varying moral shades. From the doubter Juror 8, initially the only man convinced there are question marks over evidence that would send the defendant to his death, to the stubborn, vengeful Juror 3, convinced to the end that justice has found its man.

In the sweltering, claustrophobic jury room, tempers run high as the men passionately decide a young man's fate - though for some the deadline of an impending ball game seems a more pressing concern.

As the discussion heats up, questions of pride and prejudice emerge; each juror's failings exposed as their own character colours their view of the defendant and the apparently incontrovertible evidence.

It's a specifically American piece - no reserved Brit would kick up the fuss these jurors do - which requires the comics to adopt unfamiliar accents, with varying degrees of success. But it's testament to the power of the piece that any shortcomings in this department are soon forgotten.

Owen O'Neill has the plum role of the idealistic everyman who persuades his colleagues to reconsider every scrap of evidence they have seen. He surely landed the part because this production was his idea, yet he proves himself a convincing actor.

Both Stephen Frost (as juror 3) and Phil Nichol (10) have the sort of powerful roles people kill for, full of highly-charged rhetoric and the chance to really let fly. Both do so brilliantly, Nichol's explosive, racist outburst transfixes the audience, while Frost excels in pig-headed passion.

But the lower-key roles are perfectly filled, too. Bill Bailey is literally unrecognisable as the coolly logical fourth juror, Ian Coppinger excels as the nerdy pipsqueak who gets goaded a bit too fat and Steve Furst provides the perfect voice of sanity as the foreman.

Jeff Green is the weakest link, his mild manners at odds with his character's tough street upbringing, and his accent more The Wirral than The Bronx, but his role is one of the smallest.

Andy Smart, Dave Johns, David Calvitto, Russell Hunter and Gavin Robertson all deserve mention, not just for the sake of completeness, but because this is a true ensemble piece that relies on each player as much as the next. Director Guy Masterson, a Fringe favourite, has produced a fantastic performance from each of them.

This stage version has perhaps more laughs than the film. Not that any of the stand-ups deliberately seek them, but perhaps they simply have an intrinsic ear for finding comedy in anything. Or perhaps the audience are more primed for laughing, given the cast they have come to see.

But, if anything, this enhances the script, rather than detracting from it, providing moments of relief in an otherwise relentless piece.

This is the sort of project that could only have its genesis in Edinburgh, yet it's still a surprise it has worked out so brilliantly. Disregard any misgivings you may have and go see... it's a hit, beyond any reasonable doubt.

Review date: 1 Jan 2007
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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