Jeffery Archer's The Accused, here presented by Hobart's oldest amateur theatre company, is a strange play in that it's really a gimmick and not much else. The play is simply a court case, with the stage set up as Court 1 at the famous Old Bailey. It's played out in the manner of a real murder trial, with witnesses called one by one and proceedings being run by the Jury Baliff (Nicholas King) and a rather dour judge (John Andrews).
The audience plays the part of the jury, called upon at the end of the three acts - the three days of the trial - to pronounce a verdict by holding up a card to show either "guilty" or "not guilty." The actors, therefore, are called upon to memorise two different endings, to be delivered depending on the verdict on the night, with a little sting in the tail for each.
A jury trial is intrinsically theatrical and the idea of involving the audience to the point of having them deliver the verdict is pure genius. It's just unfortunate that Archer's genius extends only to devising this concept. When it comes to the story itself, the well of inspiration seems to have run dry.
The Accused is the banal tale of a top surgeon who's accused of poisoning his wife. Patrick Sherwood (James Casey) says he didn't do it and it may be that there's an innocent explanation for the wife's demise. The fly in Sherwood's ointment is Jennifer Mitchell (Sara Brown), a nurse who claims she had an affair with him and knows the truth about his nefarious plot. Over the course of the case, an assortment of colourful characters appear in the witness box and some of the details are interesting - but, really, it's the sort of thing you could see any night of the week on one of the lesser TV crime shows.
Unlike, for instance, the topical cases featured in "Law and Order," the case in The Accused has no particular thematic resonance. Rather, it trundles out a series of cliches (surgeons abuse their power, nurses like to sleep with doctors, men sometimes want to be rid of their wives, opposing counsel in murder cases dislike each other, judges are crotchety old curmudgeons) before tying the threads together quite perfunctorily.
But, despite the pedestrian quality of the writing, this production of The Accused manages to hold the audience's attention all the way through. Considering that this is quite a long play, and, as I've said, doesn't have a particularly interesting plot, this really is no small feat. (On opening night the pace was a little slow in places, but it will no doubt pick up as the run proceeds.)
It's a pity that, although Archer's script sets up these middle-aged eccentrics as being bitter enemies, he doesn't bother to develop this plot line. Similarly, it would have been nice to see the judge get more involved in the case. As it is, he's a model of detached professionalism; commendable no doubt but a dramatic opportunity missed.
As Sherwood, James Casey effectively balances out the two sides of his character's personality, not making him so arrogant that we will instantly believe him to be guilty, but giving him enough smooth charm as to make us wonder if he might be. Of the witnesses, Sara Brown is fragile but very funny as Mitchell, the troubled nurse who claims to be Sherwood's lover, Philip Crouch is hilarious as the illiterate lodger Albert Webster and Chitresh Mukherjee is subtly brave in the role of Masood Hussein, a chemist whose shop supplied the drugs used in the alleged crime. The non-speaking role of the court guard is another highlight, with Mark Thomson giving the role more consideration than the playwright clearly ever did.
The production is neatly staged by by director Peter McIntosh, with simple but effective set design (by McIntosh and Stuart McDonald). The atmosphere created in the Playhouse Theatre by this play was fascinating to observe. Far from being sombre or uncomfortable (which perhaps might have been the original intention of the play, and which I can imagine working if the subject matter had been more ambitious), it was light and gossipy, with friends meeting during interval to ask, "Guilty or not guilty?" and then laughing when the reply came, "Hang him!".
It felt a lot like an old-fashioned pantomime, with loud noises of approval or disapproval greeting major plot revelations. I almost wished the audience had been provided with tomatoes or rolls of toilet paper, so there could have been more ways of participating in the unfolding melodrama.
Hobart Reps present
by Jeffrey Archer
Directed by Peter McIntosh
Venue: The Playhouse, Bathurst St, Hobart
Dates: 2 - 17 October
Bookings: Centertainment 6234 5998 or www.centertainment.com.au