REVIEW: Twelve Angry Men, Theatre Royal Newcastle, until Saturday

Action from Twelve Angry men. Picture by Pamela Raith
Action from Twelve Angry men. Picture by Pamela Raith

Twelve men arguing in a room for close to two hours – does it sound boring, or perhaps like a family reunion in your house?

But when the issues that the men are arguing about relate to all manner of social issues and the principle of sending a man to his death, it becomes less a boring two hours and more an engrossing, timeless story that’s tailor-made for the stage.

Tom Conti

Tom Conti

The story follows 12 jurors who have murder on their minds and a life in their hands as they decide the fate of a young delinquent accused of killing his father. But what appears to be an open-and-shut case soon becomes a dilemma for the 12, as their prejudices and preconceived ideas about the accused, the trial and each other turn the tables every which way, right up until the climax.

This production proved a huge hit in London where it had a record-breaking run, playing to sold-out houses and receiving multiple five-star reviews and it features an all-star cast, headed by Tom Conti.

Set in 1950s New York (with all the expressive accents that that entails), it captures a particular point in American history, just as the country was about to enter the modern era; it’s a time of evenings at the ball park and slick advertising executives made famous by TV series Mad Men, and, of course, all-white, all-male juries.

But at the same time as capturing the zeitgeist, through its key themes – prejudice of all kinds and how we view ourselves and those around us – Twelve Angry Men continues to resonate today, particularly with the US where the death penalty remains in use in many states and criticism of police treatment of those from poor, black communities has been almost constantly in the news recently.

It is a play about anger, resentment and hatred, but there’s also goodness, compassion and understanding. Plus there’s humour; one of my favourite lines was: ‘My son’s got mumps, he’s out here. My wife says he looks like Khrushchev.”

As expected, Tom Conti is magisterial as Juror 8, the role made famous by Henry Fonda in the 1957 film, but the show is stolen by Andrew Lancel (I could pretend to be highbrow and say, from Equus and Fiddler on the Roof, but I really mean, from The Bill and Coronation Street) as the loudmouth Juror 3, struggling to deal with his own issues of fatherhood and his relationship with his son.

In some ways, it is difficult to do much with the staging, given that the entire play takes place in the jury room, but a clever touch in this production was that the table rotated very slowly, imperceptibly at first, so that you saw the table and jurors from all angles, before it returned to its original position by the end.

It had gone through a full 360 degrees, like the hour hand on a clock. How much time should you spend debating when the life of a 16-year-old is in your hands?

Twelve Angry Men is at Newcastle Theatre Royal until Saturday. Tickets are available from £14.50 (save 50p per ticket by booking online) and can be purchased from the Theatre Royal Box Office on 08448 11 21 21 or www.theatreroyal.co.uk