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Twelve Angry Men | The Lowry

Twelve Angry Men tips to-and-fro between breathtaking tension and understated intelligence. It is a brilliantly written play that focuses on the court case of a 16-year-old boy implicated in the murder of his father. The potential outcome, if the jury settles on a guilty verdict, is the death penalty. The play happens in real time, focusing on the twelve jurors as they decide the boy’s fate. One man, played here by Jason Merrells, stands against the eleven others (who are willing to condemn him immediately). Known as Juror 8, this man chooses to focus on the severe weight of the death penalty, the case’s inconsistencies, and any areas for doubt, rather than letting the image of seemingly obvious guilt skew his opinion. Twelve Angry Men depicts the risk of neglecting justice in the face of assumptions and prejudice – a mistake made by the boy’s legal team and several of the jurors – as well as showing how flimsy and unsubstantial the power of the justice system can be when defined by these assumptions.

Firstly, it is important to note that the play’s impact, and the tension that runs uninterrupted from the beginning until the end, are significantly due to the brilliance of the script by Reginald Rose. There is a perfect balance between the play’s silence and subtlety and its impressively intricate plot, communicated wholly through the believable back-and-forth between the twelve men. The jurors rehash the events of the trial, each drawing something new into the discussion or shining the light of their own personal experiences onto the case. It is truly an excellent piece of writing, able to reshape itself to fit perfectly in the forms (film and theatre) it has been painted in. 

The 1957 film, for one, is gripping and impressively performed, and its aesthetics - as a black and white picture – work in kind with the striking tension of its content. Here though, in the theatre, everything is elevated: the conflict, the tension, the silences. The audience is even more enveloped, and even more on edge. The tension builds between Merrells’ smooth performance as the logical purveyor of justice and the disapproval and aggression of some of the other jurors. In conjunction with these conflicts, there are moments of stillness that foreground consideration and silent re-evaluation; Samarge Hamilton’s understated and contemplative performance as Juror 5 (the juror who relates most to the background of the boy on trial) is a perfect example of this.

Sometimes, though, the aggression of Tristan Gemmil’s Juror 3 (one of the strongest chasers of a guilty verdict) felt a little exaggerated, which meant some emotionally heightened moments did not land as well as others. Perhaps the elevated tension of this production could be seen to depart somewhat from the subtlety of the script. The opening tableau, for example, with the photo of the tipping scales, weighs slightly into blatancy. The play’s final moments are interesting, too - the silence and subtlety of the final minutes are perfectly executed, until the last few seconds where Juror 8’s farewell seems to last a little too long. The 1957 film maintains and upholds the story’s subtlety to a slightly higher degree. 


In terms of the capabilities of theatre compared to film, though, the set by Michael Pavelka is a beautiful example of utilising and perfecting the space of the theatre. It is bare enough to draw the focus to the performers – with the beams surrounding the room - but intricate enough to feel as real as the play’s content begs for. The water fountain and bathroom taps, for example, are in working order, and their use shows the oppressive heat and claustrophobia of the room the jurors are confined to. The layout also allows us to see into the bathroom attached to this room, a liminal space of isolation used for hushed conversations and, most significantly, a moment of real, perfect focus; while Juror 10 rants and rampages, showcasing his racist ignorance, Juror 5 (Hamilton) stands in the bathroom. After walking out on Juror 10’s spiel, Hamilton stands perfectly still alongside Kenneth Jay’s Juror 11, listening (or waiting) in silence. This moment radiates with tension and encapsulates the entire play’s focus on the interaction between prejudice, expectation, and truth. 

Twelve Angry Men is a consistently brilliant play. As a quote from Rose in the programme states, ‘the most important thing to write about’, for him, was ‘injustice’.  Here, injustice is fought with persuasive vigour and perfect boldness. The scales tip and falter as the truth emerges hazily from the laziness of prejudice. Twelve Angry Men is playing at The Lowry until the 2nd March, before continuing on its UK tour. For more information and tickets, click here


AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Jack Merriman


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