There's a famous off-Broadway play called A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking, and Twelve Angry Men could be re-titled A Dozen White Dudes Sitting Around Talking. We are inside the locked jury room of a lower Manhattan court in 50s America, where the all-white, all-male jury are debating the fate of the black 16-year-old defendant who has just been tried for the murder of his abusive father. Not a lot happens; yet as Reginald Rose's carefully articulated and moodily staged drama unfolds, it holds the audience in a vice-like grip, as it imagines what happens behind-the-scenes of a jury who are literally about to make a life-or-death decision. (They are told that if they find the defendant guilty, the mandatory punishment is the death penalty).
Originally written for television in 1954, and later adapted as a feature film then for the stage, the play is a classic potboiler: as it lays out a fine, fierce argument around what the facts of the case might be, we become part of the jury room, too. At the beginning of the play, they vote 11 to 1 in favour of a guilty verdict; but as Martin Shaw's compelling Juror 8 suggests other possibilities, each of their original certainties gradually collapse.
If only he had been in the room when The Scottsboro Boys (whose real-life story is currently being told on the stage of the Young Vic in Kander and Ebb's blistering musical) were tried in 30s America. But this play is told from the other side of the jury room, and looks at the intricate dynamics of a group of disparate men who are trying to decide the fate of a young man.
Played out in real time of just over two hours, it has a gripping theatrical conviction, and Christopher Haydon – artistic director of London's Gate Theatre who is making his West End debut here – orchestrates it superbly. Michaell Pavelka's setting of the jury table they sit around revolves imperceptibly to offer changing perspectives of the men, neatly mirroring their own altering perceptions on the case before them.
A quietly wonderful ensemble cast also do it rich justice as they eventually serve it, too. The star names are Martin Shaw, Nick Moran and American screen actors Jeff Fahey and Robert Vaughn, but each blends seamlessly and selflessly into the ranks, which also includes the equally splendid Edward Franklin, Miles Richardson and Owen O'Neill.
It is a noble, dignified addition to the West End roster.
" ... the drama’s neat, almost sentimental ending ... lingers in the mind long after the last curtain call."
Jane Shilling for Daily Telegraph
"... for all its high stakes and shouting matches, this is a nimble and frequently funny play."
Holly Williams for The Independent
"... gives a vivid impression of the way jurors allow their rooted prejudices and personal hang-ups to influence their verdict."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"No great surprises, but good stuff and well done."
Patrick Marmion for The Daily Mail
"... with writing this strong it’s a clear case of it ain’t broke so don’t fix it."
Simon Edge for The Daily Express
"The end result is a lot of rather forced pacing about the too-large playing area, which fatally dissipates the tension of confrontation."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard