Coyote on a Fence, Royal Exchange Studio, Manchester

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

However heinous the crime, no matter how evil the monster, everyone on death row deserves a decent obit. At least, that is the view of the urbane John Brennan, editor of The Death Row Advocate, the periodical of a prison in the southern United States. Bruce Graham's taut drama, receiving its UK premiere, is based around the true story of a convicted killer who penned decent words about his fellow- inmates after they'd been "murdered by the State". Brennan (Ben Cross) is alternately guarded and heated in his exchanges of letters and words with the New York Times reporter, Sam, interested in what motivates him to give voice to the men on death row. Brennan is sore from being let down by his last encounter with journalists (from the BBC), even though the unexpected exposure in America had ended up raising his profile.

His liberal attitude is sorely tested by the prejudices of Bobby who, as well as torching a congregation including 14 children, is anti-Semitic, racist in every sense, illiterate and happy to die. He has no regrets because God "told" him that these innocent black worshippers "must be cleansed", though it bugs him that God never thanked him afterwards.

With his "goofy" face, dead eye, buckteeth, gammy leg and arms tattooed with swastikas and other Nazi insignia, Bobby is a repellent creature, played here by Alex Ferns. And yet, as layers of his life story are unpeeled, you begin to understand why Brennan is convinced that this lifer is perfect for a legal insanity defence. When he's not being thrilled at the prospect of a new suit for his execution, or regretting the fact that those he killed weren't Jews, Bobby turns in a mean imitation of penguins, seals or puppies, but not coyotes, which he hates more than anything else.

Having this cell partner from hell might be considered a fate worse than death, but before I get accused of bad taste, let me applaud Graham's pithy script, which injects humour into what would otherwise be a sombre evening. "Our burgers kill too" proclaims the café near the prison. It's hard to imagine a play on such a subject being witty, but it is. "Hell," says the prison guard DuChamps, who is given a gutsy performance by Jo Martin, "I work with murderers, lawyers and reporters, and I gotta' put you all in the top three."

"Hello Mrs Wiggins, hello Mrs Stone," write the men in their letters, knowing that every last communication is fingered by censors. In Sarah Esdaile's subtle production, the human frailties of people accused of the worst crimes, spending the rest of their lives under the shadow of a death warrant, come across with immense clarity.

To 10 April (0161-833 9833); then at the Duchess Theatre, London WC2 (0870 890 1103), from 22 April

Comments