Writer: Stephanie Ridings
Director: Jonathan V McGrath
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
We’ve all heard about them, the women who fall in love with murderers on death row. There’s been books and documentaries, ranging from serious psychological studies to trashy real-life crime novels. Stephanie Ridings found herself getting a bit obsessed with it all. She thought it would be a good theme for a show so she read the books, watched the old TV programmes and trawled the internet, fact-finding, trying to understand.
Research for a show is important, so when she came across websites that offered the opportunity to talk to women supporting men in prison, what harm was there to contact one of them, get the inside story. What harm was there in selecting a death row prisoner and finding out a bit more about him. What harm could there possibly be in writing a letter…
In her solo show, Stephanie Ridings tells us her story. She challenges the death penalty in the USA through a close-up look at one man’s final few weeks. But she also creates an intimate autobiographical piece that explores her personal reasons for finding a strange kind of comfort in a relationship with a condemned man.
The Road To Huntsville started life at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe. It’s a powerful piece of documentary theatre. On a screen Ridings illustrates her story with what can only be described as a dark and quirky set of holiday snaps. Huntsville, Texas is classic small town America with strip of grim motels and fast food restaurants, and a small historic centre. And, more unexpectedly, a great big, high-walled prison where ‘state sanctioned homicide’ is carried out. Ridings spent a few weeks there in 2015, while she waited to watch the man she’d built a complicated relationship with die from a lethal injection. Ridings doesn’t hammer home an anti-death penalty message. Instead, this is a subtle investigation of life and death, right and wrong, which leaves the audience to make their own judgements. She is a compelling performer, telling a candid story that is as much about her as it is about the man sitting on death row.
Touches of humour give the piece real depth, although Ridings does fail to get some of the laughs her script deserves through mistimed delivery. The intimacy of the Lowry Studio works well for a personal piece like this, but the sound is poor and Ridings’s already quiet voice sometimes gets drowned out by a background score by Duncan Grimley, in particular an unbearable high pitched whine designed to underline the drama of the moment, but instead creating a complete distraction from it.
The Road To Huntsville comes to the Lowry for one night in partnership with Word Of Warning who have once again found interesting work to bring to Manchester. It’s part of a short tour which will extend into the autumn – and worth looking out for.
Reviewed on 17 May 2017 | Image: Graeme Braidwood