Middle Ground Theatre Company at the Civic Theatre Chelmsford
for The Reviews Hub
Given the title, it's no surprise that this is a courtroom drama. A strong morality play too, which began as a novel, then became a film with Paul Newman.
Now, 35 years on, it's on stage for the first time, touring the country with Middle Ground.
The usual issues with adaptations, of course. It needs a huge cast, many of them in supporting roles. To their credit, Middle Ground is fielding a company of fifteen, a remarkable achievement for a tour of this kind. And a string of short scenes, though here the scene changes are very smoothly done, with Lynette Webster's Irish-infused music to cover. The visit to the hospital is done very tellingly in about ten seconds, with the attorney isolated by a spotlight and life-support sound effects.
This is a medical negligence case, and the background leading up to the trial is done in Act One, with varying success dramatically. David Mamet did the screenplay for Sidney Lumet, and we can only dream of what he might have done in the theatre.
Nuala Walsh brings in an emotional perspective as the victim's mother; Richard Walsh as the Bishop represents the difficult position of the Catholic Church. The awkward job of filling in the prosecution attorney's back-story is brilliantly done by director Michael Lunney as the barman, the narrative punctuated by the clink and clatter of the bar being shut down for the night. Lunney also plays Crowley, the leading anaesthetist at the heart of the “act of God” which leaves a young mother a permanent vegetable in “chronic care”.
A strong moment, too, when the accomplished defence counsel (Peter Harding) coaches his witness in a dry run of the trial.
Despite a fine performance – in her professional debut – by Cassie Bancroft, the role of Donna, the “waitress” who befriends the prosecution counsel in his favourite bar, seems less convincing, though it does provide one of several plot twists in the second act.
Almost entirely set in the court-room (though even here, a cafe table has to be brought on for a key scene), this is the stronger half dramatically. Any court is inherently dramatic, especially in the American system – the play is set in Boston in 1980.
Two opposing lawyers – one smoothly successful, the other seeking to make a come-back in “the biggest case of (his) career” - fight it out in the convincingly solid stage set.
Frank Galvin, the washed-up, booze-sodden ambulance chaser who takes on the hospital and the Church, is brilliantly done by Clive Mantle; we see him first, in a prologue before the lights go down, stumbling into his office, sobering up before the day's work begins. Then in the courtroom, he assumes his old professionalism and charisma in a three-piece suit. The other “name” in this company is Jack Shepherd, excellent as Frank's mentor and “guardian angel” Moe Katz. Their scenes together crackle with energy and emotional impact, a very different kind of drama from the set-pieces in the trial.