Theatre review: The Verdict

Theatre Royal Bath until 22 April
Words by Melissa Blease

Since ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus wrote his Oresteia trilogy some 2500+ years ago, courtroom dramas have captured the imaginations of all those in search of gripping (melo)dramas to fascinate, inspire, or simply entertain. Whether in book, film, TV or theatre format, the genre – as easily adapted to soap opera as it is to dramatisations of real life crime stories – is the big ratings gift that keeps on giving. Why? Because, way beyond the obvious satisfaction of seeing justice served on those who commit heinous misdemeanours, the characters involved in the back stories of those felonies tend to have personal histories that offer a sub-plot more fascinating than the crime itself… and few of us can resist a feet-of-clay hero on a quest to right a very big wrong.

Boston lawyer Frank Galvin is a textbook feet-of-clay hero-in-the-making, from the moment we encounter him struggling out from beneath the desk in the office of his rundown law firm, where he’s clearly spent the night. By the time he’s brushed his teeth, put yesterday’s shirt back on and swigged another cheeky whisky (oh of course there’s a mouthwash chaser on hand), we just know that Frank is a man on the verge of losing the battles with his personal demons; the pressures of both his unfairly tarnished CV and his broken marriage have reduced him to phoning around local mortuaries in his ambulance-chasing quest for new clients.

But when a grieving mother approaches Frank with a tragic medical malpractice case involving her daughter Deborah – who is lying in a vegetative state in a local Catholic hospital for the rest of her life following what should have been a routine labour – Frank finds the fortitude to fight the good fight on Deborah’s family’s behalf. 

Taken from the novel of the same name written by American lawyer Barry Reed in 1980, The Verdict was adapted for film by David Mamet in 1982 and today remains to be one of the most critically acclaimed, award-nominated big screen courtroom dramas of the 20th century. As if adapting a cinematic behemoth for a new stage production wasn’t a tricky enough task in its own right (and Middle Ground Theatre Company/Margaret May Hobbs have aced that task with startling aplomb), reinventing a character played on the big screen by iconic American actor Paul Newman must be a challenge, to say the least. But Jason Merrells makes the role of Frank his very own with all the depth, fortitude and soul required to bring him to likeable – and wholly convincing – life.

The taut, fast-paced 140 minutes that follow the opening scene are divided into two halves, the first half alternating between Frank’s office and his favourite Irish bar, owned by his affable long-term friend Eugene (Michael Lunney – who, by the way, also directed and designed this whole production – cheers, Michael!). After the interval, the audience become the jury in the courtroom itself, complete with all the terse/witty lawyer-to-judge quips, gavel-banging, climactic sequences and – yes! – drama we’ve been anticipating.

Along the way, we meet Frank’s steadfast cohort and mentor Moe Katz (an all-round lovely Vincent Pirillo), barmaid, love interest and a lot more besides Donna (an on point performance from Reanne Farley) and characterful expert witness Lionel Thompson MD, his charismatic realism pushed to the fore by Okon Jones.

When the key characters are in the dock, Nigel Barber exudes urbane, oleaginous smarm as Lead Attorney for the Defence J Edgar Concannon, Richard Walsh unveils supercilious, scheming Bishop Brophy’s true colours and Jason Wilson’s Dr Rexford Towler demonstrates all the bedside manner of a blunderbuss as the corrupting power of established old-boy networks are revealed.

There are no big-budget special effects playing around with the moral dilemmas at the heart of The Verdict; instead, this beautifully crafted redemption tale relies on pristine casting, intelligent direction and a fast-paced script rich in traditional storytelling methods to deliver maximum impact at crucial moments, resulting in an intense, absorbing and thoroughly satisfying production.

“There is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless,” says Frank, towards the end of the drama. Ain’t that the truth? The jury’s out. 

Main image: Vincent Pirillo as Moe Katz and Jason Merrells as Frank Galvin. Photograph by Matt Larkin