Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester- until 16th June, 2019.
Reviewed by Joseph Everton.
Scrolling through hundreds of Netflix documentaries that you’ve already seen leaves you with little option but to try yet another American documentary about the innocent behind put behind bars by a crooked justice system, riddled with dishonesty, racism, homophobia and classism. These shows capture the imagination, they’re all over Twitter, and Hope Mill have tried to harness some of the genre’s popularity in their new production, recreating a current T.V. phenomenon and putting it before a live audience. Based on interviews by with six former death row inmates who have since been freed by the state after having been incarcerated for up to 22 years, Joseph Houston, as director, brings The Exonerated to his own stage. The work of writers Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen and made into a film in 2005, The Exonerated has been turned by Houston into an on-screen Netflix-style documentary cleverly spliced with snapshots of crime scenes and trials acted out from the stage below.
In the audience, far from being snuggled up on the sofa with sleepy eyes, you chain watch this absorbing documentary through the barbed wire topped fences of a high security prison. Next, you’re transported into the court room, doubling as a jury, lights beaming down, casting judgement on the accused.
The show moves from story to story deftly, capturing the personalities of each of the exonerated. In the second act, imprisonment is described by each of the subjects in a harrowing fashion. It’s difficult not to feel deep sadness as Sunny (Pippa Winslow) compares life in her cell to ‘… being thrown to the bottom of a well’. It’s impossible not to be affected by recollections of rape, torture and the agonising loneliness that the six recount.
With a majority of the show being told on-screen by a different set of actors, The Exonerated was like nothing that I have ever seen before. To its credit, these scenes were so well acted that I might have believed that they real-life recollections, if not for the actors being credited in the programme. Delbert was the only one of the six that we got to know well on-stage, played excellently by Charles Angiama. He painted himself as a creative and Christian, with his potential taken by an unfair judgement.
The Exonerated was a compelling, bingeworthy documentary style production. I’d have bought the box set and, if it existed, I’d be more than happy to turn up at Hope Mill Theatre tomorrow night for another installment.