April 2014. Reviewed by Nicholas Crickmay
The Leighton Buzzard Drama Group emphatically confirmed the high standards they maintain in production and performance in their staging of “Rough Justice” by Terence Frisby last week.
They do give themselves an initial advantage in the plays they choose and that this one immediately took a secure grip of the audience’s attention was demonstrated by the immediate reaction as the lights went up for the interval. All around the Library Theatre, the power of the piece was being acknowledged by “wows”, “phews”
and plain release of breath. This reflected the tautness of the plot, the number of issues already touched on and the quality of the acting.
Courtrooms invariably provide the setting for tense confrontations and uncertain outcomes but Frisby certainly made the most of one here. His story of the celebrated and self confident presenter of a television series considering possible miscarriages of justice who finds himself on trial for the killing of his baby son and opts to act as his own defence counsel certainly raises a good number of questions for the audience to consider.
In her programme note, the play’s Director, Jo Taylor, suggested three obvious ones : Can it ever be acceptable to take another human life? Can a man be excused given truly exceptional circumstances or is it murder, plain and simple? To these, the audience might add others which have occurred to them, in particular those relating the the two main contenders in the trial, James Highwood, the Defendant and Margaret Casely, the Prosecuting Counsel. Is he just too full of himself as a tribune of the people, unable to break away from the essentially artificial setting of the TV studio to the stern reality of the High Court? Is she too driven by her own strong feelings against “mercy killing” and does she perhaps enjoy the limelight of the court too much?
To these, the second act adds the role of Highwood’s wife,
Jean. Should she be the one on trial? All of this —- and more was illuminated by the excellent cast.
Mark Croft’s brooding, elusive Highwood was a man who could not allow himself to tell the court the full truth of the tragic life and death of his severely (hopelessly?) disabled infant son and who was bitterly frustrated by the inadequacies, as he saw them, of a system of justice which empowered the Judge too far at the expense of the Jury. The agony of his inner battle informed Croft’s performance, not least in his superb surmounting of one of an amateur actor’s main challenges, the use of pause and hesitation . His outbursts of fury were a necessary relief of tension.
Olivia Davies’s Casely entirely lived up to the warning given to Highwood that she was not to be underestimated. Whatever his eminence elsewhere, he was never to stand a chance against her high professional skills or her readiness
to employ them to the full. She came across as an extremely able young woman who was unshakeable in her own principles and beliefs (her disgust at her opponent’s self description as a humanist with no need for God made this
thoroughly clear). If Casely could sometimes be seen as rather too much of a prig and too fond of preening herself centre stage, Davies’s characterisation was rounded off by the added element of humanity she revealed in the (abortive) negotiations that promised a settlement.
Presiding over the fraught contest of the trial was Ann Kempster’s Judge. Kempster’s interpretation emphasised the role as one of an umpire’s quiet attention to proceedings. Only when her impartiality was angrily questioned by the Defendant, did she raise her voice to demonstrate her authority. A Judge’s great moment probably comes at the end of a trial when sentence is given and here we had the dramatic contrast between the the mercy implied in a suspension of sentence and the outraged reaction to Highwood’s clear Contempt of Court. Kempster’s Judge relished this to the full.
Highwood’s Instructing Solicitor is not an easy role amidst the high emotion expended elsewhere but Bob Jones drew on all his considerable experience to fill it to perfection. He regarded his client’s Bull in a Chine Shop antics with massive self control, only once allowing his re action to take verbal form during the proceedings.
Jean Highwood emerges as an important figure during the second act after a startling outburst from the cover of the audience. Her part in the infanticide becomes an intriguing element in the case. Emma Stone had an opposite challenge to that facing Bob Jones. Jeanremains an an essentially secondary figure but has to provide anguish and passion when required. She was entirely convincing in her portrayal and never allowed us to overlook what Jean was going through.
Essential though it may be that the central roles are properly filled, a truly satisfactory production also requires that the smaller parts are well played. LBDG’s team more than satisfied. Lorna Daggett as Dr Hannah Radzinski and Steve Martin as Dr Simon Kerr made convincing visits to the Witness Box as did Ben Clarke as the young PC Ramsden ,properly overawed to find himself involved in something rather more momentous than a traffic offence or drunken escapade.
Congratulations, then, to all concerned, not overlooking Mike Ward for his simple but effective set. LBDG certainly whet our appetite for their next offering.