Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
Charing Cross Theatre
When watching theatre based on true stories, it's difficult to judge it as a piece of theatre. True stories inevitably provoke a stronger reaction than fiction, and they make it easier to hide weaknesses in the production - surely if a play evokes a strong emotion, the writing must be good?
The Exonerated is heavily based on transcripts, documents, letters and articles from six cases of people who were arrested, convicted and sentenced to death row, only to be found innocent and released years later - 22 years later in the case of Kerry Max Cook, who was convicted of murder despite a large amount of evidence that pointed towards the victim's boyfriend. These are horrifying tales of corruption, racism, incompetence and bigotry. It's hard not to be moved.
Kerry Max Cook, probably the most harrowing tale of the six, is portrayed beautifully by Ian Porter. Porter's performance adds yet more truth to the words, his matter-of-fact but stilted delivery are honest and touching.
The problem with the play is that most of it is played like this - matter-of-fact and somewhat distant. Although this is a good choice for Kerry Max Cook and for relaying some of the more horrifying details of these cases, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's script is mostly all on the same level, never hitting emotional peaks and troughs. Gabriel Fleary as Robert injects a needed touch of personality into the piece, and is backed up with a very focused performance from Kelle Bryan as his wife Georgia. Together, the two provide the energy and frustration that's lacking in other parts.
The play is well structured, moving with a sort of poetry from one character to the next as they tell the stories of their arrests, their trials, their time in prison and their eventual release. The interrogations are particularly well told, showing an audience how frighteningly easy it is to being brow-beaten into a confession. In particular, Gary (Glenn Carter) tells of how he was interrogated for hours about his parents' murder until he began to wonder if he had done it. His hypothetical statement of how he would have done it was later used against him in court.
Jaclyn McLoughlin's direction matches the words - simple and dignified. However, it is sometimes a bit too still and, like the script, lacks peaks and troughs. On the other hand, George Bishop's lighting design hits a lot of troughs: there is often too much darkness over the speaker's face and at times the lighting becomes a distraction.
It's hard to criticise overly, because the play is moving. The performances are good all round, and the stories are very sad. However, they're never heart-breaking. Whilst they move, they never move to tears. The characters tell their stories as real people would and have - focusing on the facts and trying to distance themselves from the emotion of it to protect themselves. But whilst this makes for a good documentary, it doesn't quite hit the spot as a piece of theatre. We're never shown the depths of the despair these characters must have hit, we're never treated to a moment of their rage. So whilst you empathise with these pour souls, you aren't given the chance to cry for them.
Reviewer: Emma Berge