American Justice, Arts Theatre, London

Once in a while an overtly critical, agenda-driven play turns out to be written in such a way that it unintentionally exemplifies precisely what it has set out to indict. Richard Vergette’s drama (briefly seen in London in an earlier version entitled As We Forgive Them a couple of years ago) deals with a murder victim’s patrician father setting out to educate the vicious youngster serving life without parole for her killing. In three scenes set in successive American presidential election years (2008, 2012 and 2016), we see Lee Fenton grow in articulacy and sensibility as well as literacy, and John Daniels attain presidential cabinet rank as a result of his determination.

Then, in the final 10 or so minutes of the 80-minute play, Vergette lands the one-two punch that constitutes his point. Each of these characters has been manipulating the other over all these years, engineering their assumptions and positioning them for this pay-off. Except that, in order to preserve the impact of these revelations, Vergette has had to do exactly the same to us. This much might be conscious, but how can he expect us to condemn, or at least to regard unflinchingly, the machinations of the characters without being similarly unbending towards those of the writer?

In any case, the pay-off comes too late. By this point we have seen too much of apparently well-meaning but pompous Daniels, no-hoper-given-new-hope Fenton and the third main character, evangelistic redneck-by-numbers prison warden Stevens. We have seen at least two of them, in Lisa Forrell’s production, give too demonstrative performances as these too demonstrative characters (Ryan Gage as Fenton keeps things rather better reined in) and heard plentiful examples of British actors doing American accents badly: “Cowngrsmn”, “drorring” and the like.

We may have been wondering how this predictable chain of events could resolve itself, and half-expected some such kind of final reversal; we may have been (well, I was) considering the play’s arguments about politics, grief and revenge in the light of figures such as the late Irish senator Gordon Wilson. One way or another, we may well be disinclined to grant that the evening adds up to a coherent argument or commentary on American or any other justice.

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