Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 30th January, 2019
Famously made into a Paul Newman film in 1982, Barry Reed’s book is here adapted for the stage by Margaret May Hobbs. There is a strong affinity between the law court and the theatre, because of the rituals, the adversarial nature of the lawyers, and the potential for surprise.
The first act is split mainly between Frank Galvin’s shabby office and Meehan’s Irish bar in Boston, with the odd scene in Galvin’s rival’s office and a judge’s chambers, all presented on a sturdy, detailed set designed by Michael Lunney. The set adds weight to the drama and, along with the convincing accents of the cast, gives the piece an authentic tone.
As plucky attorney, Frank Galvin, Ian Kelsey is eminently watchable, wearing the role like a pair of comfortable old shoes. Drinking incessantly, it seems, and viewing the world through Jameson’s-tinted glasses, he is the decent man, standing up for the helpless (in this instance, a young mother reduced to a persistent vegetative state by alleged medical neglect). Assisting him is his mentor, the irascible Moe Katz, played by the ever-excellent Denis Lill.
Christopher Ettridge also impresses as the big bad lawyer, defending the hospital and the church dioceses that runs it. As does Richard Walsh as Bishop Brophy, who rounds out a potentially villainous role with humanity.
It’s a large and strong cast with pleasing character work from the likes of Anne Kavanagh as the victim’s mother, Michael Lunney as genial bartender Eugene, and Okon Jones in a hugely enjoyable portrayal of expert witness Lionel B Thompson. Paul Opacic is suitably suave and assured as flashy doctor Rexford Towler, and there is a striking cameo from Karen Drury as Nurse Mary Rooney.
It’s a wordy piece but is so compellingly played you hardly notice the lengthy running time. It’s a slow-burner, gradually establishing the background of the case, leading up to a trial scene that does not disappoint. Michael Lunney’s (that name again!) direction paces the action superbly, so that when the shocks and revelations come, he elicits gasps and murmurs from the enrapt audience.
This high-quality production rewards the attentive audience – and, on a side-note, it also serves as a stark reminder that our American cousins have to pay exorbitant sums for their health care, a sorry state of affairs we must not allow to become the case here, as some in our present government would wish.