Theatre Review: Twelve Angry Men @ Birmingham Rep 10/10/13

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My friend Katherine called me a couple of months ago in a state of near-hysteria, with some entertainment news she knew I’d want to hear. Being a showbiz journalist (a nice one), Kath gets to hear about stuff way before us plebs, so when she found out that Twelve Angry Men, was being revived in the West End this autumn, she was straight on the blower. And the reason? The star was to be….Martin Shaw.

We’re both huge fans of The Shaw, and I’m only ever slightly jealous when Kath gets to interview him (“he’s almost as lovely as John Nettles”…). I’ve offered many times to carry her dictaphone on such assignments, but she’s yet to take up my offer, which I can’t understand. So, with excitement levels reaching “dangerous”, I looked into booking tickets for the Garrick Theatre sometime in November. But, after factoring in trains, food & drink, handcuffs etc, there wouldn’t have been much change from £150. Then, I found out there would be a short run at the Birmingham Rep for two weeks in October. After mentioning it to old film buff friend, Tony Lindsay (old films, not old Tony…), he was as keen as I to see the play. So we got booked up for the first matinee, and grabbed a cheap, if slow, train to New Street to get us some stage action.

Fonda & co in the iconic 1957 film

Fonda & co in the iconic 1957 film

Obviously, the most famous version of Twelve Angry Men is the 1957 film starring Henry Fonda, Lee J Cobb, Jack Klugman, EG Marshall and Martin Balsam. A wider commentary on the nature of prejudice and ignorance, the plot revolves around a jury who retire to deliberate the fate of of a young man accused of murdering his father. Of the twelve jurors, eleven are convinced of the boy’s guilt, and want to get the matter settled as quickly as possible so they can each go back to their more important lives. Only Juror No.8 (Fonda), doubts the evidence against the accused, all of which is circumstantial. To the annoyance of the others (one of whom is keen to get off to a baseball game), No.8 is the only one to vote for a Not Guilty verdict, which forces the jury to stay behind. Having been told by the Judge that a unanimous verdict is required (which would also result in a mandatory death sentence), the other jurors immediately turn against No.8, convinced he is being deliberately difficult. But No.8 argues that they hold the life of a young man in their hands, and they must all be convinced, beyond reasonable doubt, of his guilt. He then picks apart the so-called evidence (something the boy’s defence counsel should have done) until, gradually, the other jurors begin to change their minds. By the end, after rows, in-fighting, personal attacks and even a real-life storm, the about-turn is complete. A Not Guilty verdict is returned, and the boy’s life is saved. Whether he was actually guilty or not, is irrelevant – the play is primarily about prejudice and the powers of persuasion.

The latest cast in rehearsals (c) Birmingham Rep

The latest cast in rehearsals (c) Birmingham Rep

Originally a TV movie, three years before Fonda, Twelve Angry Men was adapted for the stage in 1964 and has enjoyed several revivals including a 1996 run at Bristol Old Vic directed by Harold Pinter, and starring Kevin Whately in the Fonda role. This time around, then, it was down to Martin Shaw to do the business as theatre’s most famous juror, backed by an impressive supporting cast, including Jeff Fahey as the combative Juror No.3, Nick Moran as cocky Juror No.7, and the legendary Robert Vaughn as the overlooked Juror No.9.

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Understandably, Shaw has been pushed as the play’s star and the posters, promo literature and the theatre programme go a little overboard on the fact that this is ‘Shaw’s play’. But in all honesty this is a true ensemble piece. It’s not just the magnificence of the supporting cast (Miles Richardson as the bigoted Juror No.10 is particularly impressive), but everything from the direction (Christopher Haydon) to the set design, is nothing short of flawless. The other big name in this production – Robert Vaughn – is always worth the ticket price, even if his 80 years on the planet means he sometimes stutters over his lines. Thankfully, his role requires little stage movement and the others work well around him, especially Shaw, who uses every inch of the stage and interacts with every other juror at some point during proceedings. Juror No.8 is the glue which binds the others together, but only after he’s done his best to blow the ‘evidence’ apart.

Vaughn, Shaw, Fahey & Moran

Shaw, Fahey, Moran & Vaughn

The play is different from many, in that all the action takes place over one long scene. With brief cut-aways to the washroom to break things up a bit, Twelve Angry Men (like the film) is a one-set, continuous piece, whose genius lies in the script’s ability to hold an audience spellbound through words alone. Yes, the actors have to step up and be perfect, because they are all on stage, all of the time, there really is no hiding place. But the choreography of the characters’ movements around the stage, and the inspired use of a revolving table, so that the audience gets an equal view of each juror as the play progresses, all contribute to what is a seamless, technically brilliant production. At one point, I became so obsessed with ‘catching’ the table move, I may have missed  a few important lines, but that didn’t matter. This was clean, crisp theatre which, although true to its 1950s setting, still felt contemporary in theme. That is, time may move forward, but our prejudices do not.

Jeff Fahey: Scene Stealer

Jeff Fahey: Scene Stealer

Special mention has to go to Jeff Fahey, who outshone Martin Shaw in the charisma, presence and – it pains me to say – the acting stakes, too. As a child of the 1970s and 1980s, my experience of Fahey was limited to straight-to-VHS classics like Backfire, Split Decisions, Blue Heat, and the occasional big bucks flick (The Lawnmower Man, Silverado, Wyatt Earp, Machete…). Indeed, when I texted my brother (who’s equally-obsessed with 80s movies) to tell him I’d just seen Fahey act his socks off at the theatre, he replied “was it an erotic thriller?” – such is Fahey’s, ahem, screen reputation.

The point here, is that I never realised – to my shame – that Fahey had such a distinguished theatre background, not only as a respected actor, but also as producer and director. The movies? Merely very big pay cheques that enable him to indulge his first love – the stage. And boy, does Fahey’s experience, training and talent show here…in spades. Whereas there are occasions where Martin Shaw seems to be paying more attention to getting his accent right, than to the lines he’s delivering, New Yorker Fahey obviously doesn’t have that problem. His presence is truly mesmerising, his dialogue delivered with force, purpose and very real emotion, and the way he manages to take us along on his own character’s journey, from bull-headed, boorish Alpha male, to vulnerable, sensitive, failed father, is astonishing to behold. Considering the entire cast execute their roles to such a high standard, for anyone to stand out at all is remarkable. Shaw may be the one who’s going to get the bums on seats, but it’s Fahey who’ll make them stay there.

Twelve Angry Men @ Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Centenary Square, until October 19th 2013. BOOK HERE

Transfers to Garrick Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London WC2H, November 7th 2013 – March 1st 2014. BOOK HERE

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