Theatre Review: THE EXONERATED – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

The cast of THE EXONERATED at Hope Mill Theatre

The cast of THE EXONERATED at Hope Mill Theatre. Photo Credit: Shay Rowan

Blending live theatre with filmed footage, THE EXONERATED is a powerful and poignant piece about the American criminal justice system gone wrong

4 out of 5 stars

Imagine being accused of a crime you didn’t commit. Now imagine being sentenced to death for that crime, left to rot on death row as you desperately wait a reprieve which may never come. Sounds like a nightmare right? Yet for six US souls this harrowing experience was their reality as Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen’s play THE EXONERATED poignantly shows.

Inspired by real-life cases, THE EXONERATED tells the stories of six wrongfully convicted inmates sentenced to death on death row. Moving between first-person monologues, courtrooms and prisons, the six interwoven stories paint a picture of an American criminal justice system gone horribly wrong and the legal proceedings that eventually gained their exoneration.

The stories are threaded together by Delbert Tibbs, an older Texan black man who spent many years on death row for a rape and murder that he did not commit. Sharing poems that he wrote whilst on death row, as well as his own personal story of how the justice system ruined his life, Delbert acts as somewhat of a narrator, lurking in the background as he quietly observes the cases of Gary Gauger, Kerry Max Cook, David Keaton and Robert Earl Hayes.

The cast of THE EXONERATED at Hope Mill Theatre. Photo Credit: Shay Rowan

The most powerful story of all is that of Sunny Jacobs, a gentle, sweet-natured hippie who was framed for the murder of two policemen. Unbelievably, the man responsible confessed to the crimes in 1979 but Sunny was not released from prison for a further 13 years. To make the story infinitely more tragic, her equally innocent husband Jesse was brutally killed in an execution gone wrong, the electric chair malfunctioning, resulting in a long and painful death which lasted 13 1/2 minutes and ended horrifically with flames shooting from his head.

But what makes this particular production of THE EXONERATED truly stand out is its innovative staging. Director Joseph Houston takes a bit of a risk here, opting to present these poignant and powerful stories in a multimedia format by blending live theatre with filmed footage. As the action flicks between pre-recorded interviews on Netflix style TV screens hanging from the ceiling, to live action interrogations and court cases played out before the audience, Blank and Jensen’s carefully edited script is vividly brought to life by the talented cast. It’s innovative, bold and refreshingly different and for the most part, works well.

The cast of THE EXONERATED at Hope Mill Theatre. Photo Credit: Shay Rowan

In fact, the only real disappointment is that the incredibly talented live cast isn’t used to their full advantage. Don’t get me wrong, the filmed segments are well put together and are incredibly gripping, but the real power of this play lies in the quiet and unstated performances of the live cast, which, at times, feels somewhat lost against the continuously running video footage overhead, occasionally distracting from the action on stage.

That said, this is a minor criticism which doesn’t take away from the overall impact of the piece. While the tales of appalling miscarriages of justice are at the heart of THE EXONERATED, it is the stories of survival that are truly moving, Sunny in particular somehow emerging from this unimaginable trauma serene and dignified as she tries to reassemble her fractured life. You can’t get more impactful than that.

THE EXONERATED runs at Hope Mill Theatre until 16 June 2019