The Exonerated

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Since its premiere off-Broadway in 2002 Jessica Blank and Eric Jensen’s The Exonerated has been performed all over the world picking up multiple awards along the way and even making it onto the big screen in the 2005 film starring Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover.

This ambitious adaptation embraces the nation’s current obsession with binge-worthy true-crime Netflix style documentaries by cleverly combining recorded first person accounts with live theatrical flashbacks of interrogations, murders, court scenes and the grim reality of life on death row.

Jessica Stanton’s innovative design places audiences as central observers as a Netflix style menu dominates the large screen above the stage. The click of a remote control can be heard as this evening’s viewing selection is made. Audiences sit either side of a central stage which is surrounded by prison style wire fencing and rough barbed wire, only glimpsing sight of each other when the stark interrogation lighting illuminates the space.

Grant Archer’s documentary style film feels authentic and grips from the start as the lives of the wrongly convicted play out before us. The fusion of film and live action works exceptionally well as the six extraordinary stories of those wrongfully sentenced to death unfold.

Joseph Houston has directed the pre-recorded interviews in such a way that they feel entirely genuine, the pain, the emotion and most touchingly the hope expressed by each character is as fascinating as it is moving.

The live action scenes work superbly well, adding depth and authenticity to the harrowing accounts of injustice, exposing the corruption of the authorities and their manipulation of these damaged individuals. The shattering and lasting impact of their lost years on Death Row bringing devastation not only to themselves but to the lives of their friends and families also.

Charles Angiama as Delbert takes on a measured narrator style role, the Texan who spent many years on death row for a rape and a murder he did not commit guides the audience throughout, observing with us the injustices and manipulation taking place. He weaves together the other five stories as the rest of the small cast take on several roles bringing life and vision to the harrowing real-life stories.

Though the subject matter is intense and the corruption utterly horrifying the production is delivered in a way which allows for a heart-warming portrayal of the human ability for hope even in the most desperate of situations. Sunny Jacobs being the most perfect example of this: a gentle mother of two who lost not only 16 years of her life to Death Row but even more tragically her beloved husband whose wrongful execution was made all the more horrific when the electric chair malfunctioned. Pippa Winslow’s performance as the good-natured hippie is exceptional, portraying her class and composure to perfection.

The Exonerated directed by Joseph Houston. Hope Mill Theatre Manchester. Photo Shay Rowan

This inspired and impressive adaptation telling six interwoven stories marks a bold innovation in story-telling theatre. The decision to mix live theatre with pre-recorded footage pays off adding an element of authenticity to proceedings. The second half feels a little screen heavy compared to the first but this does not take away from the power of the piece. While you go into the production expecting to hear about harrowing miscarriages of justice you don’t quite anticipate the impact these stories of survival and hope will have, a true testament to the quality and care that’s been put into this inspired and innovative production.

The Exonerated is on at Hope Mill Theatre until Sunday 16th June, tickets available here.

Images by Shay Rowan Photography

Motown The Musical

10. MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. The Company. Photo Tristram Kenton

Reviewed by Nikki Cotter

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Motown the Musical is not your average jukebox production, while of course it’s jam-packed with sensational Motown classics it goes much deeper educating audiences in the history of this ground-breaking musical movement and doing so with real heart and soul along the way.

The story is told in a flashbacks by Motown creator Berry Gordy (Edward Baruwa) who started the label with just $800 and went on to launch the careers of icons such as Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations and Marvin Gaye  to name but a few. The show begins as the 25th anniversary celebration is looming but Gordy is in no mood to party.

23. MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. The Company. Photo Tristram Kenton

With such an incredible back catalogue to pick from it would be easy to fall into the tribute concert category but Mowton the Musical offers so much more as personal relationships and professional struggles play out. We begin with Gordy’s childhood where he dreams of being somebody. Through his founding of the Motown label not only does he become somebody but changes the face of not just music but popular culture forever.

The music is joyfully allowed to take centre stage, at times it moves the story on and on other occasions is there for pure enjoyment & boy does it do its job. With hits including ABC, Baby Love, My Girl, Dancing In The Street, What’s Going On and Stop In The Name Of Love delivered by the most talented of casts Motown is an absolute thrill from start to finish.

16. MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. Reece Richards 'Jackie Wilson'. Photo Tristram Kenton

Edward Baruwa is entirely convincing as label boss Berry Gordy, his journey from optimistic youngster through to disillusioned & disappointed record label boss is committed & believable. Karis Anderson as Diana Ross goes on an incredible journey; maturing before our eyes from wide/eyed schoolgirl to ultimate Vegas diva she is sensational.

Nathan Lewis shines as Smokey Robinson on what is his professional theatre debut while Shak Ganbbidon-Williams is superb as Marvin Gaye. Special mention must also go to the talented ensemble cast who take on multiple roles with incredible skill.

22. MOTOWN THE MUSICAL. The Jackson Five. Photo Tristram Kenton 2500

The real genius about this production is that it manages to effectively portray the way in which the political & social climate influenced the sounds of the time whilst still entertaining enormously; the Vietnam war, assassinations of both JFK & Martin Luther King each taking the story in a new direction, adding authenticity and richness.

In addition to this absorbing story & unforgettable music is a stunning use of projection. Scenic designer David Korins & projection designer Daniel Brodie have effectively managed to recreate houses, TV studios, theatres & offices with their intricate & dynamic designs. Panels sweep in & out adding multiple layers to the bold visuals.

Motown is a show which will appeal to all & will without doubt gain a whole new generation of fans. From its world-class soundtrack to its stunning design this high-energy, super slick production is told with genuine heart & heaps of soul; if you’re not dancing in the streets of Manchester afterwards we’d have to ask What’s Going On?

On at the Opera House until Saturday 23rd March tickets available here.