Maybe it’s because the British legal system, and the inside of the courtroom itself, is one of the last areas of society to avoid the merciless gaze of the media, or maybe it’s because we all like to develop our own opinions but there seems to be nothing we love more than a good courtroom drama, and Terence Frisby’s Rough Justice is one of the best.
Written in the early 1990s and first produced in 1994, the text is as fresh today as it was back then, and the subject matter is still just as topical and relevant. The story is of a father who, as an act of mercy, kills his hopelessly brain-damaged infant son. He takes the body to the hospital and there, seemingly calmly, confesses to the killing and accepts his fate.
There is a cleverly designed set which places the audience in the area of the court usually reserved for the jury; throughout the performance, when the judge addresses the jury, a bank of spotlights illuminate the packed house to give a tremendous feeling of inclusion.
The action starts with a brief appearance by PC Ramsden (Shaun Morton), who recounts the confession and the subsequent arrest. Two medical witnesses are called – the pathologist Dr Simon Kerr and a specialist in brain damage in infants with a massive list of credits to her name, Dr Hannah Radzinski. Simon Murray and Mary Lincoln are both tremendous in these roles, sparing the audience any jargon and dealing with the emotive issues calmly and practically – just as one would expect from such professionals.
The accused man chooses to defend himself in court but is assisted by his lawyer, Jeremy Ackroyd and, in the second act, by his wife. David Michaels plays the lawyer who is continually frustrated by his client's clumsy and unorthodox defence and Carol Starks takes on the role of Jean Highwood, the wife coming to terms with her husband’s crime.
Royce Mills as the Judge, is the only weak link in the chain and this is simply because he appears to be continually reading his lines from the lectern behind which he sits, although his shortcomings are soon forgotten when Elizabeth Payne appears as the prosecutor Margaret Casely. Her performance features all the pomposity, verbal dexterity and determination of the best High Court professionals with an eye, and ear, for even the smallest details.
James Highwood, a television personality and now self-confessed killer, is played to perfection by Tom Conti. One moment self–assured and confident, the next a crumbling wreck breaking down in the dock, he delivers the highs and the lows with passion and conviction and gives the kind of performance for which awards are rightly given.
Of course, no courtroom drama would be complete without a few twists and turns, and this piece has more of those than a rollercoaster ride but taking a guilty / not guilty vote after the curtain calls is, in my opinion, a mistake. Incorporating it into the play, with two alternative conclusions, would have given more life to a slightly flat ending. Nevertheless, it remains a superbly thrilling drama which left us dissecting the evidence long after the curtain had fallen.