12 Angry Men is one of those classic single-set plays with a gripping premise, a snazzy title and a plot as tight as a mermaid’s brassiere.

Forgive the archaic gag: perhaps the play’s humour is infectious. Reginald Rose’s drama (written for television in 1954) is riddled with such wisecracks, although the work’s premise has granted it an understandably more serious reputation.

The dozen grumps of the title are jurors in 1950s New York, gathered to determine the fate of a young black man on trial for murder. They’re all testy for different reasons, but only one is tense because he thinks the accused is innocent.

The aforementioned humour wasn’t lost on director Guy Masterson, who cast British comics in a 2003 production staged at the Edinburgh Festival. It proved a surprising hit with critics and audiences, including two Australian producers who convinced Masterson to restage it in Australia.

The result is engrossing, even if a little exhausting.

There are some worthy performances, including Marcus Graham as the Juror 8 (the one with a conscience) and Peter Phelps as Juror 4. Comic Shane Bourne as Juror 3 at first is simply irritating, with an anger pitched at a consistently bland shout. His eventual breakdown, however, is a complete shock and unexpectedly moving.

Masterson has masterfully choreographed the static action for maximum theatricality. A careful observer will eventually note the judicious use of the water cooler by the actors -“ a device that keeps the menagerie in flux and away from the deadening table.

The drawn set also beautifully communicates one simple and understated dramatic idea. When Juror 8 attempts to demonstrate a flaw in the evidence using a floorplan of the accused’s building, it becomes clear we are watching a crime scene, in which the jurors’ prejudices could send an innocent to the electric chair. Neat, simple, timeless stuff.

12 Angry Men is playing at the Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, until 13 November. Phone 9266 4805.

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