Theatre review: 12 Angry Men, Edinburgh

Tom Conti is the 'brilliant, thoughful' Juror No. 8 in a touring production of Twelve Angry Men. Picture: Contributed
Tom Conti is the 'brilliant, thoughful' Juror No. 8 in a touring production of Twelve Angry Men. Picture: Contributed
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THE only rule about good theatre is that there are no rules. In general, the greatest shows in 21st-century theatre seem to be the ones that reach out to the audience, and leave them in no doubt that this is a piece of live entertainment.

12 Angry Men

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

****

The Effect

Tron Theatre, Glasgow

***

Yet sometimes, a play appears that sits comfortably behind the line that divides stage from audience, and still manages to deliver a superb piece of live art, gripping, compelling and irresistible.

Reginald Rose’s classic mid-20th-century American drama Twelve Angry Men – first written as a 1954 television play, before it became the famous 1957 film starring Henry Fonda – is a prime example of one of those plays: not theatrically flashy, but built around the relentlessly powerful story of a lone juror in a New York murder case, who, faced with an 11-1 majority for a guilty verdict against the young black man accused of the crime, gradually exposes the doubtful motives behind this rush to convict, and the underlying weakness of the evidence.

And in this Bill Kenwright touring production, directed by Christopher Haydon, there’s finally no resisting the grubby municipal grandeur of Michael Pavelka’s jury-room set, with an invisibly slow revolve gradually bringing all 12 faces into view; nor the terrific performances delivered by a mighty team of actors, led by a brilliant, thoughtful Tom Conti as the liberal dissenter, Juror No. 8, and Denis Lill as the terrifying Juror No. 10, whose blatant racism, once flushed into the open, has the case for a guilty verdict crumbling before our eyes.

Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, by contrast, is a recent British drama that struggles a little harder to make theatre out of a story that is part academic debate, part self-absorbed exploration of the meaning of human identity. Connie and Tristan are twentysomethings taking part – for money – in a six-week medical drugs trial, supervised by Lorna, the in-house doctor, and her arrogant boss Toby.

The drug being tested, though – for use against depressive illness – is a form of dopamine, source of many feel-good emotions, including the feeling of being in love; and as Connie and Tristan begin a whirlwind affair, neither knows whether their feelings are genuine, or just a product of chemical interference with their brains.

The problem with the play is that there’s something about this premise that actually undermines the drama; it’s hard to care about characters whose pretty ordinary-looking sexual motives may not even be real, and harder still to enjoy the play’ slightly flat-footed debates around chemicals and the brain.

In this new touring production by Firebrand of Hawick, though, Richard Baron’s company give this full-length play an impressive run for its money. Scarlett Mack and Pauline Knowles turn in outstanding performances as Connie and Lorna; Ken Harrison’s clinical laboratory set, with terrific sound and light, is a model of good-looking small-scale design.

And in the end, the play shows a touching sense that love, after all, may be the answer; if only we can find it, and believe that it’s real.

• Twelve Angry Men is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until tonight, then at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 22-27 June; The Effect is at Summerhall, Edinburgh, 11-14 March, and on tour.

Seen on 25.02.15 and 24.02.15