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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Exonerated

Now, we must look upon it as putting a sick animal to sleep… So let's let all the freaks and perverts and murderous homosexuals of the world know what we do with them in a court of justice: we take their lives.
---- Prosecutor
Unfortunately for the real-life subjects of The Exonerated, the death penalty is exactly what they did not deserve. Portraying harrowingly narrow escapes from unjust execution, the powerful stories of six innocent death row inmates are related. We witness the gross failures of court justice, the painful incarceration as the convicted await that reprieve which is as uncertain as it is deserved and finally the freedom which is irrevocably scarred by their past ordeals.

Much of the strength of the play's message lies in its simplicity. A panel of actors sit across a harshly-lit stage and read from lecterns. Any sense of theatrical artifice is underplayed, so that the experience possesses a powerful sense of the genuine. Nevertheless, the text is well-crafted and skilfully written, interweaving stories all fashioned from the words of the people Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen interviewed across America.

As in America, the London run of The Exonerated will feature a number of high-profile actors on a rotational basis. Confirmed British stars include Gina Mckee (Tuesday 7 March - Sunday 12 March), Nigel Harman (Tuesday 4 April - Sunday 9 April) and Catherine Tate (Tuesday 14 March - Sunday 19 March), while from across the Atlantic, Danny Glover, Richard Dreyfuss, Kate Mulgrew and Kristin Davis are promised. Although it is obvious why celebrities are keen to add their names and prestige to this politically-edgy project, I cannot help but feel that a well-known personality might detract from the atmosphere of harsh authenticity.

The cast appearing on the night I saw it were skilled in the chameleon style of acting where their own personae are submerged into the individual parts. Delroy Lindo played the articulate, intelligent Delbert Tibbs, Aidan Quinn the Texan Kerry Max Cook who was accused of murder because he stole the Deputy Sheriff's car, and Stockard Channing as Sunny Jacobs who loses her equally innocent husband to a brutally blundered execution. The entire cast in fact conveyed the ingrained, long-term consequences of so emotive a subject with breath-taking integrity.

The Exonerated is certainly playing to a different audience perspective in the UK, where it is rare to find defenders of capital punishment. However, with cases like the Scot Kenny Richey currently on death row whilst protesting his innocence and refusing plea bargains, the international relevance of this issue is indisputable.

Also, although the risk of wrongful execution is one of the most powerful arguments against the death penalty, it does not actually tackle the core question of whether it is right to take someone's life because of their crimes. Instead, the play has a specific political purpose and is a one-sided indictment of capital punishment. Nevertheless, it is powerfully moving and humbling portrayal of unimaginable experiences.

The play's run in Edinburgh proved that its illustrious history in America could successfully transfer across the Atlantic. With a Fringe First, A Champion of Justice award and an Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award under its belt in 2005, The Exonerated will without doubt now be a sensational hit in London.

LINK to Reviews in New York
The Exonerated

Written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen
Directed by Bob Balaban

Starring: Stockard Channing, Aidan Quinn, Delroy Lindo
With: David Brown Jr, Curtis McClarin, Heather Simms, Barbara Barnes, Bruce Kronenburg, Larry Block
Producer: Louise Chantal
Company Manager: Tom Jeffords
Running time: 90 minutes with no interval
Box Office: 020 8237 1111
Booking to 11th June 2006
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 28th February 2006 performance at the Riverside Studios, Crisp Road, Hammersmith, London W6 9RL (Tube: Hammersmith)
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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
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