Twelve Angry Men: All the rage

The emotive issues raised in the latest West End revival of the classic courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men are as relevant today as they were in the 1950s, says Michael Coveney

Courtroom drama – suspense, inquisition, revelation and justice – is the lifeblood of theatre, from the Greeks to Agatha Christie, and the return to the West End of one of the great modern examples, Reginald Rose's Twelve Angry Men, seems as though it's catching the popular zeitgeist as much as coinciding with current theatrical trends.

It looks likely to tune right into our on-going arguments over the pros and cons of trial by jury, making two major points: the play, like the film, highlights the risks and dangers of adopting the death penalty, and validates the process of discussion in the jury room.

This legal framework, together with the racial connotations – the delinquent boy accused in the play of murdering his father is from the underclass and presumed to be black – echoes last summer's revival of To Kill a Mockingbird in the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park, and follows hard on the heels of the Young Vic's new musical The Scottsboro Boys, which charts the 1931 scandal of nine black youths sentenced to death on a trumped-up rape charge.

Bill Kenwright's production, presented in association with the Birmingham Rep, where it was seen last month, is directed by the Gate Theatre's Christopher Haydon and stars Martin Shaw in the role of the forensically truth-seeking juror played in the film by Henry Fonda.

The playwright Reginald Rose, who died in 2002, was a pioneer in American social issue television drama – he also wrote the screenplays for The Wild Geese and Who Dares Wins – and was moved to write the original television play of Twelve Angry Men (1955) after serving on a jury for a manslaughter trial; we all, or most of us, know what it's like to sit in a hot stuffy room for hours on end listening to the personal problems and public complaints of fellow jurors, clever and stupid.

What we don't often experience, or not as thoroughly as Rose does, are the twists and turns of argument and revelation in such a compact, dramatic distillation of both distinct archetypes and nuanced characters. Christopher Haydon reckons that Rose's dialogue has the same intensity and drive as Aaron Sorkin's in The West Wing, and is fond of quoting to his actors his own slightly tweaked version of a line in Joseph Heller's Catch 22: "The harder Yossarian argued, the more he realised he was wrong, and therefore the harder he argued."

Haydon had never seen the film, but has always loved the play, and his involvement with Bill Kenwright was brokered by producer Nica Burns, who owns the Garrick Theatre, the play's new London home; this is the first West End revival since Harold Pinter's great production in 1996, when critics invoked such miscarriages of justice in the climate of terrorism as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six.

It is probable the late Ken Campbell, sage of Epping Forest and bizarre story-telling genius, appeared in the world premiere of the play (as Juror 2) with an amateur drama company in Ilford, Essex, in February 1959: "A surprisingly mature performance," said the Ilford Recorder, from the young drama student at Rada who regularly appeared with the company.

I say "probable" because it's difficult to establish exactly where and when the first of Rose's several stage adaptations surfaced. The television play was broadcast in 1954, and Sidney Lumet's film – a black and white masterpiece of acting, atmosphere and inventive, un-showy cinematography – premiered in 1957. None of the jurors had names, but we got to know everything else about them, and Henry Fonda's clear, unblinking eyes follow us laser-like down the years.

The first and only West End production was co-presented by its long-forgotten star, Leo Genn, at the Queen's, moving along Shaftesbury Avenue to the Lyric, in 1964, but it seemed to be just one more thriller, or courtroom drama, in a season when I plumped instead with my schoolboy pocket money for a compelling financial and business drama at the Garrick, Difference of Opinion by George Ross and Campbell Singer, starring Raymond Huntley and Robert Beatty.

Twelve Angry Men was not exactly forgotten – it remained a popular one-set staple in the reps and with amateurs – but Pinter's revival, featuring Peter Vaughan, Timothy West and Tony Haygarth, was newly revelatory, with the lovely touch of E G Marshall, Juror 4 in the movie, the Wall Street broker, "voicing" the unseen judge.

In the following year, 1997, there was an American television "politically correct" update directed by William Friedkin starring Jack Lemmon (in the Fonda role), George C Scott, Hume Cronyn and James Gandolfini, which bounced off reactions to the O J Simpson trial; the judge was a woman, four of the jurors were black, there was some added profanity and a smoking ban in the room. (We were now half-way towards the all-female Twelve Angry Women produced in a small New York theatre in 2011.)

Amazingly, the play never reached Broadway until 2004 (Boyd Gaines in the lead), one year after Guy Masterson's Edinburgh FestivalFringe revival starring 10 angry comedians (and two actors, Russell Hunter and David Calvitto) including Owen O'Neill, Steve Furst (aka Lenny Beige), Bill Bailey, Stephen Frost and Phil Nicol. It wasn't, in truth, very good, but the audiences loved the play, and so did the cast, and now Haydon has brought two of them, O'Neill and Calvitto, into the new production, in different roles.

The play is so broad-based in its appeal that it can survive this sort of gimmicky casting (and, presumably, the all-female version), and the Tricycle in north London even offered a production with a cast comprising twelve lawyers, non-professional actors, at the end of 2002. It's the intensity of the play that allows this, what Haydon calls "the conflict distilled to its essence" in a single room.

Passion is a relevant quality here, too. Haydon himself runs a political programme at the tiny Gate in Notting Hill and, in the course of researching a new play about the birth of modern Egypt and the Arab Spring, was arrested in Tahrir Square. And Jeff Fahey, appearing at the Garrick as Juror 3, Lee J Cobb's role in the movie, and best known recently as the helicopter pilot, Frank Lapidus, in the hit television series Lost, is a global ambassador on the US committee for refugees and immigrants, working in Afghanistan and Syria.

As for Martin Shaw, playing the good guy Juror 8 completes possibly the strongest hand of all modern actors playing around with the law: having got rebellion out of his system in the first Royal Court revival of Look Back in Anger, and as Elvis Presley in an Alan Bleasdale play, he became a practical law enforcer in the television series The Professionals before ascending to principled respectability as Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons on stage at the Haymarket.

He has also played P D James's detective Adam Dalgliesh on television and is currently best known as both Inspector George Gently and Judge John Deed, a proactive High Court judge with as much ambition for establishing the truth of a case under pressure as any high-minded juror, or indeed his steely, persuasive character in Twelve Angry Men.

'Twelve Angry Men', Garrick Theatre, London WC2 (nimaxtheatres.com/Garrick) tomorrow to 1 March

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