Review – Rough Justice, Milton Keynes Theatre, 22nd September 2012

Rough JusticeTerence Frisby. The name alone brings back thoughts of the Swinging Sixties. Fashion, pop and innocently risqué sex comedies. To think I was only 8 years old when I was taken to see Frisby’s There’s a Girl in my Soup at London’s Globe theatre (now the Gielgud). It starred West End stalwarts of the time Richard Coleman, Peter Byrne and, over from Australia, Karen Kessey. It was one of those early theatrical experiences that cemented my relationship with the stage, if that’s not too pompous a concept for an 8 year old.

You couldn’t get much of a greater leap of subject matter from There’s a Girl in my Soup to Rough Justice, which originally appeared in London in 1994, and concerns the trial of a media celebrity who has admitted killing his nine month old, severely brain-damaged baby in a fit of… well he can’t actually describe what kind of a fit it was. All the professional evidence points towards the fact that the late infant wouldn’t have had much of a life and probably wouldn’t have made it past 40. Not that that’s justification for murder in the eyes of the law, of course. But anyway, James Highwood, the aforesaid celebrity, insists it’s manslaughter and not murder.

Courtroom dramas are always exciting, and this is no exception. Highwood defends himself without the aid of Counsel, so is bound to make mistakes and put his foot in it even more. His legal adviser is amiable but you sense slightly ineffectual, and the prosecution barrister, Mrs Caseley, is a formidable, word-twisting, humourless adversary who can discern the weak spot in a witness statement at fifty paces. Add to the mix a slightly doddery judge, the occasional outcry from the gallery, and clunking prison door sound effects straight out of the opening titles of Porridge, and you have all the ingredients for an engrossing legal wrangle well told.

The set is simple but works perfectly for the text; two walls shoot in every so often at right-angles to create Highwood’s barren waiting cell for his meetings with his solicitor and wife, then they shoot out again and become part of the backdrop of the court. The lighting too, is simple and clear and is used to highlight Highwood’s loneliness in the dock; but also the house lights dimly come on whenever the judge or barrister are addressing the jury, so that we, the audience, also feel like we’re playing our part (as indeed we will, later).

Tom Conti Highwood is played by Tom Conti and it’s just the kind of role he plays perfectly. An everyman character under duress; an ordinary nice guy pushed to the limits of what life dishes out before you crack. As you would expect, he brings out all the wry humour of the script as well as tugging at our heartstrings with some extreme and highly convincing emotionally-charged scenes. An actor as experienced as Mr Conti, and in a role like this, could very easily have simply “phoned it in”; but I really admired the fact that he gave an absolutely first rate performance to our small Milton Keynes matinee as if it were a capacity Saturday night in the West End. And it was so rewarding to see him do a good play again, unlike…

Elizabeth Payne As Margaret Caseley, acting for the prosecution, Elizabeth Payne gives a very strong performance. Witheringly redoubtable, you would not want to face her in the witness box. It’s no surprise that she didn’t become a defence lawyer. With her superbly clipped tones, and bullying to the extent that the law allows, it’s a very well written role and her performance does it credit. I also liked David Michaels as Highwood’s long-suffering lawyer Jeremy Ackroyd, awkwardly gooseberrying around in the cell when Highwood and his wife meet, and becoming the embodiment of a facepalm emoticon whenever his client says all the wrong things in court.

David Michaels I was very pleased to see another old stage stalwart for the first time in ages, Royce Mills as the Judge. He has a perfect voice and physical presence for the part, and manages to combine kindliness with a robustness that makes you think that he genuinely is a disinterested legal presence; whilst all the while giving splendid facial reactions to the court goings-on. Carol Starks plays Highwood’s wife Jean, with her own demons to sort out, and is very convincing with her tired, scared and complex support of her husband. The other smaller roles are all very well played and I also feel it’s a very assured directorial debut by James Larkin.

Royce MillsThe play ends suddenly, with the verdict. I was expecting some further plot development afterwards, maybe a tying-up of some loose ends; but the play is seen very much through the court’s eyes, and so after the jury have delivered their verdict, its job is done. However, Tom Conti does then come forward at curtain call to address the audience and ask if they agree with the verdict in the play. Considering only the admissible evidence we have seen, we are asked to vote guilty or not-guilty to a charge of murder by a show of hands. I won’t tell you how either the play ends or indeed how our audience voted, but I can tell you that Mrs Chrisparkle and I gave different verdicts. Honestly! I ask you! Did she not hear the evidence?? Mrs C also reported back from a trip to the Ladies’ after the show that, in her opinion, the play had done the impossible; it had encouraged a group of ladies in the toilets who had never met before to discuss the play and whether they thought Highwood was guilty or not. That’s some achievement.

Carol Starks So, it’s smartly written, with a couple of twists, good characterisation and has a thought-provoking ending. At the interval Mrs C and I discussed it avidly trying to work out the whys, wheres and hows of the whole story, and that in-depth discussion carried on after the show as well. A rewarding and well performed play that I would certainly recommend.

How much do you think is a reasonable price to pay for an interval ice-cream? We’re not talking a Heston Blumental concoction here, just one of those innocent looking standard little tubs that appear in an usher’s tray and are about a dozen mouthfuls’ big. Spoon under the lid – you know the deal. As it was a matinee we thought we’d give our livers a treat and swap the Sauvignon Blanc for a Toffee Fudge. Imagine our surprise when the large handful of coins Mrs C offered the usher were not man enough for the job. £3.50 is the cost of a tub of ice-cream – that’s £7 for the two of us. Time after time we saw people approach the ice-cream man, look aghast, and then walk away empty handed. If we were to take Lady Duncansby, the Special Agent nieces plus their parents to the panto in Milton Keynes, that would set us back £24.50 just for seven ice-creams! I can tell you that’s not going to happen – especially as their panto stars (and I use the word loosely) Louie Spence this year. But I fear the Milton Keynes theatre is turning into quite a hostile environment. Our seats in the stalls were absolutely freezing cold. Put the heating on, can’t you! Add to the fact that they have crammed in an extra row of seats to the detriment of audience sightlines and legroom, and now they are overcharging for ice-creams. Our solution, incidentally, was to buy two Sparkling Waters instead, which, including my 10% off for having an ATG membership card, came to £3.60. I do hope Milton Keynes isn’t going to become the Ryanair of theatres.

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