The Exonerated, Assembly@the Queen's Hall, Edinburgh

The drama of lives on the edge of extinction

Their harrowing stories are told well, in a stark setting and in simple narrative form, using words assembled by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen from trial transcripts, court documents, letters, and interviews with 40 former death-row inmates.

Since its opening off-Broadway The Exonerated has attracted attention not just for its politically charged content but also for star turns by high-profile actors who rotate in two of the roles.

On its European debut the Hollywood actor Robert Carradine (to be replaced next week by Aidan Quinn) took one of those vacant seats, playing Kerry Max Cook. Just one unhappy victim of a flawed justice system in which plea-bargaining has a lot to answer for, Cook was sentenced for a rape and murder he didn't commit. In quietly unemotional tones Carradine spoke the words of Cook, imprisoned for 20 years, during which time he was subjected to appalling abuse and saw 141 fellow inmates go to the electric chair. By the time he was released in 1999, Cook's brother and father had died, and he had also lost his mother who, blaming him for the others' deaths and bringing shame on the family, now regards him as dead.

The other rotating role is being taken in Edinburgh for only three performances by Sunny Jacobs - a name one doesn't recognise, perhaps. Jacobs, unidentified until the end of the performance, delivered her lines with compelling, compassionate eloquence... and they were her own lines. She was convicted, along with her husband, of killing a policeman and served 17 years on death row before the real culprit owned up. Her husband died in a horribly botched electrocution before he, too, could be released, yet she displays a remarkable resilience of spirit, a lack of bitterness and a moving determination to get on with life.

The lighting wasn't always accurate, leaving Jacobs (rather appropriately, perhaps) half in light and half in shadow, and it wasn't easy to catch every word, given some of the heavy American accents and the heat of several of the exchanges. But the show allows words to speak louder than action, and is directed with a minimum of fuss by Bob Balaban (the co-writer and co-producer of Gosford Park).

Nothing is more compelling than the drama of human life, especially when it is played out on the verge of being extinguished.

To 27 Aug (not 15), 5.30pm (0131-226 2428)

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