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A CurtainUp London  Review
The Accused

By Lizzie Loveridge

Only a foolish lawyer asks questions to which he already does not know the answer   -- Sir James Barrington QC

Well if ever there was a case of "art imitating life" this is it, except that I hesitate to use the word art about this plodding production. Political survivor and Tory Party wide boy, Jeffrey Archer, ennobled under Prime Minister Thatcher, disgraced under Prime Minister Blair, has come to the London stage.

Archer plays an "actor" accused of murder in one of his own plays, a few days before he is committed in real life to appear at the Old Bailey accused of perjury. If Agatha Christie were still alive you might be adding plagiarism to the charges against Archer as this murder/mystery play bears a remarkable similarity to one of her own novels which was filmed in the 1950s with Charles Laughton and Marlene Dietrich. Sleuths among you will know to which film I refer, others look for the * at the end of this review.

The novelty of this play is that we, as the audience, are treated as members of the jury. The theatre ushers are dressed as barristers, and each seat has its own instrument for a vote to be taken at the end of the judge's (Tony Britton) summing up to indicate whether we think the defendant (Jeffrey Archer) is guilty or not guilty.

The scenario is this: Dr Patrick Sherwood (Jeffrey Archer) is accused of the murder of his wife by injecting her with a prescription drug which was purchased by Nurse Jennifer Mitchell (Emma Davies) who is Sherwood's colleague and mistress. Evidence is presented by a porter (David Weston), a pharmacist (Madhav Sharma), a professor of pharmacy (David Collings), a police inspector (Douglas Fielding) and Jennifer Mitchell. The prosecuting counsel is a left wing barrister (Michael Feast) and for the defence appears an establishment figure, Sir James Barrington (Edward Petherbridge). In the final scene of the trial Sherwood takes the witness stand himself.

For most of the play Archer sits in the dock, his profile to the audience, his mouth turned downward in a constant scowl. His hair is frizzed from numerous attempts to cover up male pattern balding while almost everyone else in the court wears horse hair wigs. Occasionally he turns to look at us, with a glassy stare from behind his rimless spectacles. When he takes to the stand his acting is as wooden as the Old Bailey itself. He sways in the witness box clinging to the wooden bar. His answers are pat and mechanical. His evidence is delivered with hardly a pause for thought as if even he is bored with his lines.

The rest of the cast are a pretty distinguished group of actors. The exchanges between Feast and Petherbridge are the nearest that this dinosaur of a play gets to gripping. However, even the parts written for the barristers are not realistic as there are too many jokes, too many interjections which reduces the trial system to common banter. \

There are two different endings according to whether the audience votes to find Archer "Guilty" or "Innocent". The night I was there, the voting went 194 Guilty to 256 Innocent. The set is an impressive reproduction of the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court, which Archer will be viewing from the dock in May 2001. Now that trial would be worth seeing!

*Answer: Witness for the Prosecution

Written by Jeffrey Archer
Directed by Val May

With: Edward de Souza, Edward Petherbridge, Michael Feast, Rebecca Kilgarrifff, Dominic Kemp, Neil France, Tony Britton, Jeffrey Archer, Douglas Fielding, David Weston, Madhav Sharma, David Collings, Emma Davies, Gary Taylor, Richard Hodder.
Design: Simon Higlett
Lighting Design: Vince Herbert
Sound Design: Frank Bradley for Aura
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with two intervals
Box Office: 020 7930 8800
Booking to May 3rd 2001
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th December 2000 performance at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1
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