Reasonable doubt in Twelve Angry Men

Cast photo by Jack Merriman

Reginald Rose’s 1955 courtroom drama Twelve Angry Men ends its tour in York this week. Taking place in a single room across two hours, we follow the jurors in real time as they debate, argue, fight and vote their way towards their verdict in a juvenile homicide case – some finding that they can’t leave their past experiences and prejudices at the door. The verdict must be unanimous, with a ‘not guilty’ verdict encouraged if they have any ‘reasonable doubt’.

The closed space/closed time technique demands a lot of the actors who must keep up the tension and claustrophobia. This accomplished ensemble more than manage this feat and also bring out much more nuance in their characters than the play’s title suggests. Each of the twelve jurors are clearly drawn individuals representing a cross-section of (albeit inevitably mostly white male) society, skillfully led by Jason Merrells and Tristan Gemmill exhibiting the most diametrically opposed views. Christopher Haydon’s direction is astute, as what could become quite a static play remains dynamic and pacy, aided by Michael Pavelka’s revolve design.

“Possible but not very probable”

Despite its firm setting in 1950s America, the play clearly still has a place today and its themes of justice, prejudice, doubt, parenthood, classism and racism are still relevant. As recent Channel 4 experiment The Jury showed, there is a fascination with what happens behind these closed doors, something which is such a key part of America’s (and our) democracy, but which (as the play shows) is not fool-proof or clear-cut. As the characters say, “This isn’t an exact science”.

The play is billed as a thriller, which is a slight misnomer. Early references to the locked door and a duplicate knife become less Chekhov’s guns and more red herrings, yet this thought-provoking story still has a lot to recommend it. The verdict? Worth a watch.

Twelve Angry Men is running atGrand Opera House York until Sat 18 May 2024 – tickets and further info available here.

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