Malvern Theatres, Monday 1st October, 2012
Contrary to what you might think, I have never set foot in a court room. All I know about what goes on I got from the telly (favouring John Deed over Judge Judy). Courtroom drama is a genre of its own and with it come certain pitfalls.
They’re all a bit static. With the judge on the bench, the defendant in the dock and the witness on the stand – there’s very little in the way of action and I always wonder if the story would be better as a radio play.
With not much happening, the case on trial had better be intriguing and the defendant compelling, to engage the audience and hold its attention. Terence Frisby’s 1994 play has not only a murder trial that poses a moral dilemma but also much to say in support of the jury system, a cornerstone of our democracy.
Tom Conti plays James Highwood, a kind of domesticated Jeremy Paxman figure who turns himself in for the suffocation of his infant son. He is the kind of self-inflated, smug kind of boor to insist on representing himself. As details of the crime come out – some of them horrific – Conti achieves the impossible: we begin to sympathise and to understand. There are a couple of opportunities for Conti to break down in a monologue, dropping his urbane smarm and revealing the nightmare and devastating emotional stress he has experienced.
Court room scenes are interspersed with moments in his cell, in confab with his lawyer (David Michaels) and his estranged and much younger wife (Carol Starks). Here, further details emerge and game-changing revelations are blurted out – in one superb speech, Starks raises the acting stakes considerably – I don’t think Conti quite matches her intensity and emotional truth after it.
All the procedure and ritual are here. The cut-and-thrust verbal sparring of prosecution and defence, scoring points off each other. The stern but avuncular judge (Royce Mills bringing some gravitas and authenticity to the proceedings) The expert witnesses… Elizabeth Payne is very strong as the prosecuting barrister, Margaret Casely – more than a match for Conti’s opinionated media pundit.
It cracks along at quite a pace, and there are flashes of wit and humour to alleviate the agonising and the moralising. Director James Larkin juggles these conflicting moods very well but I could have done without the houselights glaring in my face every time the judge addressed the jury. I think turning to the ‘fourth wall’ would be enough.
Enjoyable and thought-provoking, Rough Justice is definitely worth seeing, providing exactly what you expect from a courtroom drama. It is a genre I can only visit as a rare treat, however. I don’t think I could sit through another for some time.