From the moment we entered the theatre and took our seats the atmosphere was building. There was a wash of sound playing low in the background, the sound of cars and general city hubbub. Once everyone was seated the house lights dimmed and the effect of a train passing distracted us as the actors assembled on the stage in a jury box type formation. This was our first glimpse of the ensemble, Juror Eight already standing out by appearing in profile rather than face on as an offstage announcement sends them off to the jury room for their deliberations, swiftly moving the action to the main set. This was a backdrop of windows in the main room furnished with chairs, a water cooler, benches and a large table. Stage left was the washroom area complete with working sinks, stage right a chair for the guard to sit in for the duration after locking our jurors into their claustrophobic setting.
The set was laid out really well with the large table rotating so slowly round in a full circle that you hardly noticed it happening until you suddenly realised that it was in a new position as the action continued. The lighting was also subtly done, with the main set lights dimming when the interactions were focused in the washroom.
After going to musicals for so long I was taken aback when the actors weren’t miked up. This was fabulous – there was no problem hearing anything that was going on with such a talented cast and it made the audience really concentrate and listen in silence, enraptured by the play unfolding around us.
The cast was all spot on. Obviously, I had the film in my mind, but hadn’t seen it for quite a while (I confess I re-watched it when I got home later, just for comparison.)
Tom Conti was Juror Eight, the role made famous by Henry Fonda. His delivery was soft-spoken at first making later outbursts all the more dramatic, and so very well-timed. I was pretty thrilled to get to see him in action, to be honest as I have always enjoyed what I’ve seen of his TV and film work. It all seemed to flow so very naturally that some of it almost sounded ad-libbed until I replayed the film and there it was, practically word for word. I was in awe of his skills throughout the performance.
Stepping into Lee J Cobb’s shoes as Juror Three was Andrew Lancel who I last saw on stage playing Brian Epstein so very brilliantly. Juror Three’s part builds to a wonderful and highly dramatic crescendo at the end of the play, with the seeds for this being planted fairly early in the first half. The character is stubborn and adamant in his decision about the case, not easily swayed at all. Andrew carries off all of the aspects of this character expertly. You really get annoyed at his pigheaded and bullish behaviour which makes his final scene, and changing his mind, all the more effective.
I didn’t really scrutinise the cast list much before going to the play so spotting Robert Duncan as Juror Four in the opening scene was a real treat. He was someone else who just made it all look so easy, as did Denis Lil playing the bigoted Juror Ten. His speech about how “these people lie” was very uncomfortable to listen to and I mean that as a compliment to the actor! The whole ensemble was brilliant and despite the claustrophobic nature of the play, there was an underlying sense that everyone seemed to be having a good time.
The 1957 film is high drama, yet this version allowed for laughs. It wasn’t played for laughs however, it’s not a humorous subject, but there were purposeful pauses while the audience reacted to the irony and hypocrisy in the speeches and attitudes of various jurors. These brief outbursts of laughter were the only sounds to punctuate the awed silence of the watching public. The interval and the end of the play heralded a sound akin to us all breathing out after realising we had been holding our collective breath for so long. Everyone around us seemed impressed, especially with the effect of the moving table, and both the interval and the finale were greeted with warm and generous applause.
It’s a shame this touring production isn’t really coming anywhere close enough for another trip to see it. Live theatre is always magic, but live theatre done this well is simply breath-taking! And if you think I’m gushing in this blog post, take pity on all those I have spoken to in real life about it, going over the tiny details in the direction and staging, the nuances of the performances and the emotions that all these things combined evoked.