Review: Rough Justice, Theatre Royal Brighton, until October 13

Royce Mills as the Judge (right) with Tom Conti as James Highwood.
Royce Mills as the Judge (right) with Tom Conti as James Highwood.

A landmark Sussex murder case was almost certainly in the minds of many members of the audience at the Theatre Royal’s searing examination of the English legal system. Rough Justice written by Terence Frisby tackles the thorny question of child killing - from the points of view of dad James Highwood, (Tom Conti,) mum Jean (Carol Starks,) prosecutor Margaret Casely (Elizabeth Payne) and judge (Royce Mills.)

The agonising choices each makes are presented intelligently and fluently, with the audience making the final judgement of ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty.’

Having covered the murder trial in question where a mother was accused and convicted of murdering her two toddlers, I can reassure anyone going to see this play that the courtroom jargon, language and atmosphere are completely authentic - down to the shabby, backroom ‘deals’ proffered by prosecution and defence .

TV and media pundit James Highwood is in the dock accused of murdering his nine-month old, severely brain-damaged son. He pleads guilty to manslaughter but not guilty to murder, relying on the courage of members of the jury to underpin their verdict with common sense rather than rely on a strict legal interpretation. He is verbally skilled and feels he has no need of a professional QC to present his case.

A bewildering revelation follows - which the theatre audience is party to, but which would have been below the radar for a real life jury. Tom Conti’s James Highwood - deceptive and slightly shambolic gentleness shot through with a forensic mind-set - is cross-questioned by a chillingly intimidating female barrister (immaculate Elizabeth Payne.)

The word play is sharp and witty and although the subject matter might be heart-wrenching, the evening proves enlightening, funny and as satisfying as a log fire on a chilly night.

Author Terence Frisby used this play to provoke. He points out: “A jury can do justice as they see it, whatever the law may be; the judge cannot. He is bound by the dictates of the law. So juries have used their power to acquit prisoners accused of breaking unpopular laws even then they have been expressly directed by a judge to return a ‘guilty’ verdict. The jury system is possibly our best export, prime safeguard against the possible tyrrany of the judiciary. It is not used on the continent of Europe as it is here.”

I guarantee, you will not loll over in your seat and flicker your eyelids during this revelatory play.