Review: The Verdict at New Brighton Floral Pavilion ****
Courtroom dramas have a long history on film Think To Kill a Mockingbird, A Few Good Men, Runaway Jury, Witness for the Prosecution and 12 Angry Men to name but a few.
The latter classic was directed by Sidney Lumet, and a quarter of a century later he followed it with The Verdict – based on a book by lawyer and novelist Barry Reed – which garnered a clutch of Oscar nominations.
Similar stage dramas are comparatively few and far between. Logistically, how do you try a case in front of a 12-strong jury without ending up with a musicals-sized ensemble cast for a start?
Middle Ground Theatre Company’s enjoyable stage production of Reed’s tense David and Goliath story has a neat, and effective, solution, but more of that anon.
The theatre company originally brought the 1980-set play to the Floral Pavilion six years ago when Clive Mantle appeared as its chief protagonist, washed-up Irish Catholic Boston lawyer Frank Galvin.
In this latest touring version, Jason Merrells (hot foot from Happy Valley) takes the reins and delivers a considered and believable performance as the story’s flawed hero.
His Galvin is an alcoholic with – as we learn – a troubled backstory and an estranged wife, a cynical ambulance chaser who mithers funeral homes for potential clients among their distraught families.
When ex-mentor Moe Katz (Vincent Pirillo) drops a straightforward medical malpractice suit in his lap, it looks like an easy payday with a substantial out-of-court settlement on the way.
But after Galvin visits his client Debbie, a young mother left in a persistent vegetative state after a general anaesthetic administered in childbirth went wrong, he feels a pang of conscience, rediscovers a bit of his old fire-in-the-belly and decides to see the case through to trial to secure the real money needed to make a difference to her care and her children’s future.
It means going up not just against the hospital, but – as was explored in the excellent Spotlight on the big screen - against the entire establishment in the form of the all-powerful Catholic church which reaches into Boston’s everyday life through it schools, churches and hospitals and which is determined to protect its reputation.
Above and top: Jason Merrells in The Verdict
That point is brought home when it’s Richard Walsh’s urbane Bishop Brophy who appears in Galvin’s tatty office (one with a crucifix and a religious allegorical painting on its walls) to personally deliver a tempting cheque which “covers everything – legally and morally”.
Seemingly thwarted at every turn, can Galvin win against the church’s bullish hotshot lawyer J Edgar Concannon (Nigel Barber) and a system that appears stacked against him?
The rather lengthy first half, which moves between Galvin’s office, favourite bar haunt, Concannon’s practice and judge’s chambers, sets the scene as well as introducing a seemingly sympathetic love interest (Reanne Farley) and a perhaps unnecessarily detailed back story.
After the interval, the curtain lifts on an impressive courtroom set (designed by Michael Lunney who also, in an equally impressive feat of multitasking directs AND appears as a genial bar owner and an anaesthetist defendant) where the audience becomes the jury, Galvin and Concannon breaking the fourth wall to address us directly.
Lunney deftly builds a sense of simmering tension in what becomes an unexpectedly gripping legal showdown as a frustrated Galvin attempts to lay out his case before Walsh’s prickly Judge Sweeney and against Concannon’s choreographed and emotionally charged defence.
Who will win the day? It’s not as clear cut as you might imagine. And if you remember the film, you may also be surprised.
Talking of clarity, while there are no ’12 good men and true’ the show still has an extensive cast of characters, and even more names are bandied about, so it’s useful to have the handy descriptive spread in the programme to refer to.