Theatre Review: Rough Justice at Milton Keynes

Elizabeth Payne who is currently starring in Rough Justice
Elizabeth Payne who is currently starring in Rough Justice

The storyline of Terence Frisby’s play Rough Justice, which came to Milton Keynes Theatre this week, is not a laugh a minute.

It may star top British comedy actor Tom Conti, but his journalist character James Highwood is trapped in the very serious situation of defending himself in an agonising legal battle.

The majority of the action is played out in a courtroom setting in which James stands in the dock charged with murdering his nine-month-old, severely disabled baby son.

Pleading to the good nature of the jury, James tells a doleful tale of how he smothered his brain-damaged infant, having been driven to distraction by the pitiful physical state of the young boy.

His hope is to make the jury realise that, despite what the judge and lawyers say to lead and guide them, they still have the power to return a verdict of manslaughter, protecting him from a life spell in prison.

A high profile media commentator, James’ anti-mercy killing views are well known but as the story progresses, the audience discover that there is far more lurking beneath the facade of what is presented in court.

When the prosecution advises James and his wife Jean that if the mother were to admit to the killing she may escape prison on a minimal sentence for infanticide, the family has a tough decision to make about the way they will go forward with the case.

The play is a fascinating one, constantly calling on the characters and the audience themselves to question and cross-examine the judgements they make and the facts they call true.

Not only is the sensitive subject of “mercy killing” brought to the fore, but also the question of whether the British legal system is as dedicated to truth and justice as it pretends to be and whether the right laws are in place to make sure those in court get a fair outcome.

Despite being a play dominated by complicated pieces of dialogue, this courtroom drama is gripping from start to finish; something made possible by some wonderful performances by an extremely talented cast.

Tom Conti really shows his worth as one of Britain’s best known actors through his ability to really reveal the complexities of James Highwood. In the dock, James is at one moment clever, articulate and confident and at another moment, broken, sobbing and distraught. Tom’s skills go a long way to helping the audience empathise with a man charged in a horrific murder case.

Another star of the show is Elizabeth Payne who plays the devastatingly shrewd prosecution lawyer Margaret Casely. She successfully manages to portray a character who can be tough and cruel as well as fleetingly soft and sympathetic.

At the end of the play the audience are asked what their verdict would have been and the answer is far from easy. This is a thought-provoking play and one I would recommend for the quality of its acting and its relevance to the world in which we live today.

Rough Justice will run at Milton Keynes until Saturday. To book tickets, log onto