Theatre reviews: Jury Play at the Traverse, Edinburgh | Look Back in Anger at Cumbernauld Theatre

THE idea of the jury as a 'little parliament' of citizens, and as one of the foundations of our liberty, looms large in British and Scots law. Yet if a jury is a parliament, it's one where the members are usually obliged to sit in silence, not even allowed to ask direct questions; and the idea that this system is no longer fit for purpose is the driving force behind Grid Iron's latest show, co-produced with the Traverse Theatre. As the show opens, the audience enters a Traverse One transformed into the High Court of Edinburgh during a murder trial, with a magnificently benign and eccentric John Bett, as the Judge, presiding in full robes. Fifteen members of the audience - a distinguished bunch, on Wednesday night, including Deirdre Brock MP and David Greig - are chosen by lot; and then empanelled as the jury, in the case of a horrible knife murder on a quiet Edinburgh street.

Jury Play
Jury Play

Jury Play ****

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Look Back In Anger ****

Cumbernauld Theatre

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This is no ordinary courtroom drama, though; images flicker on the wall behind the judge, music surges and recedes, the show’s two writers - director Ben Harrison and legal academic Dr Jenny Scott - appear on video discussing how the show should go. We soon begin to hear the jurors’ inner thoughts, and to see surreal images of just how bored and marginalised they feel; and when one of them actively rebels, we find ourselves shifting into a through-the-looking-glass world that also invokes 21st century ideas about deliberative democracy, in imagining how the look and feel of a courtroom might change, for changing times.

Jury Play sometimes seems a little like a left-field live training video for would-be leaders of the legal profession; and there’s one notable lapse of narrative energy during the second half. Mostly, though, it’s an exciting, witty and thrillingly open-ended piece of drama about what we mean by justice, and how we can achieve something closer to it; presented with all the flair, elegance and sense of spectacle that is Grid Iron’s hallmark.

At Cumbernauld, meanwhile, director Ed Robson revives John Osborne’s great 1956 play Look Back In Anger, about a man - iconic anti-hero Jimmy Porter - who would not give the time of day to any part of the British establishment, including its judicial system. Powerfully staged on a double-depth set that allows some scenes to be played at a slight distance, as if in fragments of memory, Robson’s production is short, supremely vivid, and graced with two brilliant, heartrending central performances from Andrew Rothney as Jimmy, and Meghan Tyler as his wife Alison. The world Osborne portrays is radically different from our own, 60 years on, yet Jimmy’s sense of fury and frustration at a world gone wrong seems, if anything, even more significant today than in 1956; and Robson’s production is one that deserves a much longer life, once its Cumbernauld run its over.

*Jury Play is at the Traverse until 7 October; Look Back In Anger is at Cumbernauld Theatre until 14 October.