Featured image: Harvey Milk at the desk of George Moscone.

Rating: ***

In 1978, the assassination of Harvey Milk – the first openly gay elected official on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors – and Mayor George Moscone, shocked the region. But it was the trial of their killer, Dan White, which was considered a gross injustice and sparked riots across the city. American playwright Emily Mann gives us a factual insight into the trial itself, using court transcripts peppered with personal accounts from outside the Halls of Justice. This creates a ‘theatre of testimony’, as Mann describes it, that not only documents, but breathes fresh insight into a trial which left a sour taste.

The strength of the play is that it gives a sober and measured account of White’s trail. Whilst Milk was an excellent and remarkable film, it ultimately is a very impassioned and emotional account, painting a very particular character of his killer. Here, Mann’s approach gives the audience a chance to scrutinise the evidence and arguments presented before the court, enabling them to construct a more matter of fact portrait of White. This can leave the viewer’s perceptions of White as a villain and justice as a failure somewhat challenged, as they are put through the stoic process of the law. While it may not cause revelations, it’s an incredibly interesting exercise to be put through, prompting a surprisingly intellectual response.

The additional testimonies which break up court proceedings add much needed depth and breadth, letting loose the voices of a community grieving and in shock; galvanising the raised eyebrows to idiosyncrasies which led to a people robbed of closure and equality.

But it’s the attention to detail and staunchly verbatim approach that leaves the play feeling too dry. Each statement, judgement, and exchange is acted out in full as if the case were happening before your eyes. The problem with real life courtrooms is that they ironically lack the drama of courtroom dramas. Mann’s attempts to break up the script do work, and flourishes of drama are incredibly effective. Under the esteemed direction of Joss Bennathan, the recollection of the iconic candlelit march, and the climax to the court’s bitter judgment, are moments that really stick to your countenance. However, there are just too few of these to stop the 100 minutes from dragging. In short, it lacks the grand and compelling elements of recent successes such as Parade and Cause Célèbre.

Propping up the production are some excellent performance, especially those of the sparring lawyers – Christopher Lane and Ben Mars. Lane is superb as smug and sly defence lawyer Douglas Schmidt, screwing up his face when his rival has the upper hand, and grinning maniacally when he knows he’s trumped his opponent. Mars, is also tremendous as tenacious and determined prosecution lawyer, Thomas Norman, desperately fighting the odds stacked against him. It is these little nuances of character that are incredibly engaging amongst a format that lacks excitement.

While this isn’t the most powerful piece of political theatre, it’s certainly an important one and is very worthy of anyone’s time. Despite its faults, it’s a well executed meditation on justice in a society striding social chasms.

Execution of Justice plays at the Southwark Playhouse, London, SE1 2TF, until 4 February 2012. Tickets are from £10 – £18. To book call 020 7407 0234 or visit southwarkplayhouse.co.uk. The production is supported by Harvey Milk Foundation and Stonewall.

James is in his mid-twenties currently living in Southeast London. Originally from Southwest Wales he's moved to London, via Manchester, and has a strong passion for the arts. He likes a good gin, and his ice cubes are London Underground roundel shaped.