Terence Frisby, author of this courtroom drama starring Tom Conti as a father who admits the manslaughter of his brain-damaged baby son, takes a dim view of the British legal system, with the programme notes telling us of his own “dismal experience” of law during past civil court actions.
And that explains a lot.
In the dock of the wood-panelled Old Bailey set, free rein is given to Conti’s character James Highwood to question the very basis of the murder charge against him.
And pitting his considerable wit against the prosecuting counsel (Elizabeth Payne) and the bumbling judge (Benjamin Whitrow), the eloquent James cleverly picks at legal knots, undermines the law and ties his intellectual argument with linguistic loops and flourishes as he tells the all-important jury that, if the law is unfair or doesn’t make sense, they can choose to clear him.
Having heard that the audience would be asked at the end of the play to also decide, guilty or not guilty, I thought we were in for a tense, thought-provoking night of theatre.
But I found myself wanting to shout out “guilty” long before the interval.
For me, this was a bit too much like a sounding board (with a twist you can spot a mile off).
Conti was affecting in the moments James is overcome with emotion, but the Shirley Valentine star’s charm couldn’t prevent a growing irritating as his character pushes into contempt of court territory. And it’s hard to have any sympathy for him or his cold fish wife Jean (Carol Starks) when we learn they thought of their nine-month-old son as a “vegetable” and referred to him as “Cabby”.
The humour in the play – mostly barbed comments to the effect that the law’s an ass – sits awkwardly alongside distasteful descriptions of the baby’s medical condition and their account of the three minutes that it took to suffocate him with a pillow. When the parties address the jury, they face to the audience – drawing us into the claustrophobic courtroom set which, by sliding a couple of walls, doubles as the holding cell where we are privy to information the real jury wouldn’t know and where James awaits the verdict.
Then it’s our turn: the house lights go up and we’re asked to vote by a show of hands.
My hand shot up but I found myself in the minority. Monday night’s audience found James not guilty.