TELEVISION scriptwriter Reginald Rose was called to serve on a New York jury in 1954, and his experiences in the locked jury room inspired him to write what became his best-known play, performed countless times on stages across the English speaking world and famously filmed with Henry Fonda in the lead.
It is a timelessly salutory story, filled with human fear, prejudice and aggression, and if the ending is inevitably flagged at the start, the process is no less compelling. The cast of this Christopher Haydon touring production has built up an intense camaraderie during its 12-venue run, which continues until February.
The story begins as twelve men, jurors in a murder trial, are sent out of court by the judge to consider their verdict. The foreman calls for a vote, and 11 of them are certain of the guilt of the accused, a 16-year-old boy from the slums who is said to have stabbed his abusive father.
One man, Juror 8, is not sure. He has heard the judge say that the verdict must be unanimous, that a guilty verdict will mean the death penalty – and that if there is a reasonable doubt, the jury must acquit. And he knows there were questions he wanted the defence lawyer to ask during the trial, but had not done. Gradually his insistent questions persuade each jury member to re-examine what he has heard. Anyone who has served on a jury will know how this happens – how each individual juror hears and sees a different aspect of the evidence, the witnesses and the narrative of the event.
As the play progresses the background story of each man emerges, and perhaps Juror 8 is the most enigmatic by the end. Here he is played by American actor Patrick Duffy, best known as Bobby Ewing in Dallas, with quiet authority and humility. Casualty and Corrie star Tristan Gemmill is a powerhouse of aggression and tension as Juror 3, leading an excellent cast of recognisable people displaying all their preoccupations and dreads as they try to make sense of a flawed case presented by a disinterested lawyer which will determine whether a young man lives or dies.
The death penalty is still in force in 27 states in the USA, almost 70 years since the play was written. The racial, social, religious and economic prejudices remain, in some places even more violently than they are depicted in Rose’s play.