When Jeffrey Archer begins to act, late in this self-penned piece, members of the audience struggle to contain their giggles. This has nothing to do with his talent for comedy and everything to do with his excruciating woodenness. In a shootout of raw performing talent, the oak witness box in which Archer stands acts him off the stage.
The Accused, written by a man once described in the Daily Mail as "probably the greatest storyteller of our time", is a feeble and thinly plotted courtroom drama where the audience is asked to serve as jury. This is done via the use of an electronic voting system – by far the most entertaining aspect of the evening – which is wired to the back of each seat.
To reach your verdict, however, you have to sit through two and a half hours of tortured performances. To be fair to the actors – many of whom have had distinguished careers (including Tony Britton as the judge) and looked suitably embarrassed to be in such rubbish – they aren t given much, besides cliches, to work with.
The case against Archer's character is so weak and full of holes that it should never have come to court in the first place (let alone the stage) and the cast of witnesses is straight out of the "Ladybird book of stereotypes". The "cor-blimey" mansion-house porter is followed by the "more English than the English" Indian pharmacist, who in turn gives way to the dusty old academic "expert witness" whose judgement may not be so expert after all.
Patrick Sherwood (Archer), an eminent heart doctor, is accused of poisoning his wife. If you are to believe the witnesses, Sherwood is either a murderous schemer or much maligned caring doctor who is framed by a spurned lover. The evidence is largely circumstantial and inconsistencies make it virtually impossible for “the jury” to reach any decision. The only crime on which you can unanimously agree is that Archer has written a very boring, and unbelievably static, play.
The great thing about theatres and stages is that they have all of this wonderful space to move around. Director Val May therefore should take the witness box to explain why his performers stay invariably rooted to the spot. The lawyers for the defence and prosecution (the always watchable and partially redeemed Michael Feast and Edward Petherbridge) take it in turns to lurch forward over their benches as they cross-examine witnesses but their feet remain welded to the floor.
Once the verdict is reached, the play is quickly put out of its misery, though with little satisfaction – especially once you realise that, whichever way you vote, the script is rigged to prove you wrong. What a con.
I never thought I would say this of Jeffrey Archer but, the law and the Conservative party willing, he should stick to politics. At least then we can laugh at him for all of the right reasons.