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Review: Rough Justice – Yvonne Arnaud

Published on: 18 Sep, 2013
Updated on: 27 Sep, 2013
and Tom Conti in Rough Justice

Carol Starks and Tom Conti as Jean and James Highwood vin Rough Justice

by Amy Yorston

Courtroom drama is popular on our television screens in all manner of formats. In the theatre ‘whodunits’ and thrillers offer more creative avenues for playwrights to follow and are produced regularly. But it is rare to find a theatrical piece that is set purely in a relatively restrictive and static setting of a courtroom.

Rough Justice is a highly articulate piece of theatre that moves from the dock to the cell and back again, with swift and hugely effective set changes. The play is not a ‘whodunit’. This is made clear in the opening scenes that the defendant has pleaded guilty and whilst it does enjoy a few twists cannot be described as a thriller as the possible endings are few in number.

James Highwood (Tom Conti) stands in the dock having pleaded guilty to killing his severely brain damaged nine month old son. There is no doubt that a crime has been committed but the question is whether to charge him with murder or to believe his argument for the manslaughter charge. What follows is a battle of wills (and of words and definitions) in which prosecutor Margaret Casey (Elizabeth Payne) digs for the truth antagonizing Highwood at every turn.

As a popular television personality and investigative journalist, Highwood is a man of great intellect who seems to appear both smug and self satisfied. His decision to defend himself leads to plenty of witty and cynical quips and this extra layer of character gives the play an additional dimension.

With the houselights raised each time the jury is directly addressed, it is for the audience to consider how they would react in real life to this media savvy but clearly conflicted individual who doesn’t shy away from his crime.

There are of course revelations as the plot unfolds but the premise is straightforward. What is unexpected is the level of humour. Comedic lines pepper the play throughout.

Every script needs light and shade and with subject matter that includes the pros and cons of mercy killing a few wry observations about the legal profession are a welcome relief. The old adage that comedy and tragedy are closely linked are proved true. Nonetheless the laughs felt, at times, inappropriate for the setting.

Tone aside, this is a strong and experienced cast who handle the difficulties of the script with consummate skill. The courtroom interplay is paced extremely well and Payne attacks her speeches with great vigour. Her sharpness contrasts neatly with Benjamin Whitrow’s well observed Judge who appears at first glance, deceptively, doddery.

The character of Jeremy, who serves as solicitor to James, also represents the legal profession and David Michaels creates a likeable but frustrated man avoiding the temptation to play the character entirely for laughs.

As Jean Highwood, wife of James, Carol Starks brings a great emotional intensity to her scenes and her monologue is particularly moving. Conti as James Highwood is both charming and arrogant, never entirely a sympathetic hero but not quite slimy enough to dislike.

This is certainly a thought provoking play and the issues that it raises are pertinent, emotive and deeply divisive, however the comedic elements and address to the audience jar with the dramatic content resulting in a production that whilst at times absorbing can feel somewhat contrived too.

Rough Justice by Terence Frisby is on at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre until Saturday 21st September.

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test One Response to Review: Rough Justice – Yvonne Arnaud

  1. Keith Chesterton Reply

    September 21, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    I saw the play – very well acted, a demanding & real dilemma tackled, but somehow, it didn’t quite jell, and I couldn’t understand why.
    I think your critic got it right – It was the contrived feeling that took the edge off it.
    But still well worth seeing.

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