When handed the program to Rough Justice, I sat down amongst a rather elderly audience in the Playhouse feeling skeptical about what was about to occur. Featuring a small but experienced cast, such as Tom Conti, a.k.a Miranda Hart’s dad, and David Michaels, a.k.a Jon Welch off Coronation Street, one might question how they would cope with Terrence Frisby’s gritty court drama of a well-loved television journalist (Conti) on trial for the murder of his severely brain-damaged son, Cabby. Highland admits to manslaughter but claims he suffocated the child on “impulse”. Throw in the fact that Highland chooses to be his own defense against a prolific and sharp-tongued lawyer (Liz Payne) and that he is merely covering up for his wife (Carol Starks…Holby City) who is the real killer, you’re looking at a script that is rich, textured, and darkly humorous.
In terms of performances, the real star of Rough Justice was prosecution lawyer Elizabeth Payne. She maintained a sharp delivery and revealed a number of levels to her character through her flirtatious interchanges with the judge and her seemingly genuine sympathy for Highwood. Conti’s performance as James Highwood was good but did not live up to expectations; his one-liners were badly-timed and although his nervous breakdown at the end of the first half was more convincing, the relationship between him and Carol Starks was detached and awkward to watch. The judge and the Highwood’s legal advisor (David Michaels) fulfilled the comedic action particularly well, Michael’s reactions to every legal faux pas made by Highland were impeccably timed and often drew a laugh from the audience.
The setting was impressive but unnecessary – although it was successful in transforming a large stage into what felt like more intimate court room, the scene changes from the courtroom to the cell-like back room were noisy and distracting. The nature of the setting limited movement throughout the performance; all bar prosecution lawyer Margaret Casely seemed incapable of movement once they were assigned their designated box or bench. Effective use is made of the upper balcony in the playhouse as a public gallery implement the feeling that the audience were a part of the jury.
Overall, although the power of the script surpassed the quality of what simply was an unpolished performance, this play challenges who holds the power, the judge or the jury? Can common sense appeal in a court of law? A nice touch at the curtain was when the cast asked us to vote on whether we would have judged Highland as guilty or not guilty. Thought-provoking, impeccably constructed and not just for the law students. I recommend.