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In October 2013, I saw this play at Birmingham Rep, with Martin Shaw heading up the cast. After transferring to the West End, the show is now touring with Tom Conti in the lead role, although for a four week run, tv star Jason Merrells takes over from Conti, and it was Jason Merrells who I saw as Juror number 8, at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre.

For anyone who doesn’t know, this play was written by Reginald Rose, and adapted into a superb and much-loved 1957 film, starring Henry Fonda. The whole play takes place in one setting and in real time – twelve jury members have to decide whether a young man is guilty of murdering his father. The case seems cut and dried, and eleven of the jurors initially have no doubt whatsoever that the defendant is indeed guilty. But juror number 8 – we never learn the actual names of any of the jurors – is not so sure. With the death penalty an absolute certainty in the event that the man is found guilty, he wants to make sure that they take time to make sure they are sending the best verdict they can.

The jurors, to me anyway, represent the best and worst in all of us – there are those who want to be reasonable, and firmly believe that there is valid evidence to suggest the defendant is guilty.  There is juror number 7, the baseball fan who only really cares about getting out of court in time to go to the game that evening, and of course, there is the angry juror number 3, whose anger at his failed relationship with his own son taints his view of the young man sitting in the dock.

The atmosphere is suitably claustrophobic – twelve relative strangers are stuck together in one room, on a hot day, with no working fan. Tempers flare, prejudices are revealed, and each character reveals more about himself than perhaps he would like.

I loved Jason Merrells as juror number 8 – he gave a commanding yet understated performance. Although the character is something of a hero, the beauty of the role is that in fact he is just a normal man who wants to do the right thing. Andrew Lancel was excellent as juror number 3 – angry, hurt and feeling like a failure, he resents his fellow juror who as far as he is concerned, is trying to put a murderer back on the streets.

However, it’s hard to just pick out particular members of the cast, because in truth, there was not a weak link to be seen. The dialogue was believable, and the tension seemed all too real. With all of the cast members being on stage throughout the whole show, and with just one setting, I really felt as though I was right there with them, and the revolving table around which the cast sat (which revolved so slowly that you simply could not see the movement, but which ensured that every cast member was clearly visible to the audience no matter where they were) was a brilliant idea. The audience at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre looked mesmerised and at times, you could have heard a pin drop.

Simply wonderful – if you get a chance, you should definitely see this wonderful production.

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Click here for my review of this production (2013)

Click here for my review of the 1957 film adaptation

Click here for my review of the 1997 film adaptation

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This is the adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s book of the same name, where she talks about her work counselling death row inmates, and her campaign against the death penalty. There are some slight differences – in the book, Sister Helen discusses two inmates; here it just one inmate, with elements of both men incorporated. Also, in the book, electrocution was by electric chair, and in the film it is by lethal injection, but apart from that, the film remains true to the spirit and message of the book.

I first watched this film in the late 90s, and I remember sitting in stunned silence when it finished. I naively thought that I would not be so affected by it this time around, especially as I knew what was coming. WRONG! I actually spent about half of the film in tears.

Susan Sarandon (in an Oscar winning performance) portrays Sister Helen, and Sean Penn is Matthew Poncelet, the death row inmate to whom she offers friendship and spiritual guidance. Both performances are blisteringly good. The beauty of this film is that it doesn’t try and defend or excuse the heinous crime committed by Poncelet, and nor does it try to make him a sympathetic character (frankly, he isn’t). But this film is about more than one man. It is about the rights and wrongs of using the death penalty as punishment for crimes. Personally I am completely against the death penalty, but I respect the makers of this film (and Sister Helen) for daring to show both sides of the argument. The grieving families of Poncelet’s victims are portrayed with sympathy and honesty. Of course they are angry because of their loss – they have every right to be, and their desire to see their children’s murderer executed is entirely understandable. The film is balanced and as objective as it can be, given that it is based on the book of an anti-death penalty campaigner.

It is thoughtful, and thought-provoking, as a film with this subject at its core should be. Whichever side of the argument you’re on, I would highly recommend watching this. Just superb.

Year of release: 1995

Director: Tim Robbins

Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, John Kilik, Tim Robbins, Rudd Simmons, Allan Nicholls, Mark Seldis, R.A. White

Writers: Sister Helen Prejean (book), Tim Robbins

Main cast: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry, Roberta Maxwell

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Click here for my review of the book.

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Sometimes in life, a book comes along that hits you square between the eyes, and has a real impact.  You know that book, that you can’t stop thinking about once you’ve finished it?  That book that you just didn’t want to put down?  That book which made you immediately want to find out more about the author and the subject?  For me, this was one of those books.

It is Sister Helen Prejean’s true account of her work as a spiritual adviser to death row inmates in Louisiana, in the 1980s.  The book concentrates on her friendship with two very different death row inmates – Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie.  Sister Helen is completely against the death penalty, and in this book, as well as talking about Sonnier and Willie, she lays out her reasons for her feelings, such as how the death penalty is an instituionally racist system, which is biased against black offenders AND black victims.  It is also unfairly biased against the poor, who often simply cannot afford a decent defence counsel.  She describes how the death penalty is completely ineffective as a deterrent against crime, and how the cost of carrying out executions takes money away from other areas, such as putting more police on the streets.  However, this is a review, not a recap of this book, and I do not intend to recount every point Sister Helen makes – although I strongly urge everyone to read it, whatever their views on the death penalty.

I found Sister Helen’s relationships with Sonnier and Willie to be very moving.  She acknowledged the heinous crimes they committed – and although the reader knows from the outset that these men are violent and dangerous criminals, in this book, they are also depicted as human beings.  Their crimes are in no way excused, but I found it impossible not to feel sorrow when she describes their executions – at the futility of their deaths, which accomplished nothing and did not bring their victims back.

Sister Helen understands the need for some people to see these prisoners “get what they deserve,” and she does not condemn those who disagree wtih her stance.  She also was instrumental in setting up support groups for victims of violent crime, and that work is also described in the book.  She also fully agrees that the people who commit such vile acts should pay fully for their crimes, but using such an arbitrary and unfair system, is not helping anyone, including the victims.  At no time does she seek to trivialise the pain of the victims, or in any way suggest that there are needs are any less important than the cause which she believes in – and she actually forms an interesting friendship with the parents of a murder victim, who are in support of the death penalty.

I cried a number of times while reading this book.  Despite the heavy subject matter, Sister Helen’s writing is eloquent and honest – sometimes painfully so – and she is not afraid to acknowledge when she herself has made a mistake in judgement.  I found it a very difficult book to put down, and have no doubt that I will read it again in future.

Needless to say, I strongly recommend this book. 

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Click here for my review of the 1995 film adaptation.

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E Block, Cold Mountain State Penitentiary, in 1932, is the setting for this stunning book.  The green mile of the title refers to the floor of the block, and the green mile is the last walk that the prisoners of E block will ever take – for this block is for those prisoners who have been sentenced to execution in the electric chair.

Narrated by warden Paul Edgecombe, decades after the main events of the book took place, this tells the story of a very unusual prisoner who came to the prison, namely John Coffey, a huge black man who has been sentenced to die for rape and murder of two young sisters.  John is like no other prisoner that the wardens have ever seen, either physically or in any other way.  As he spends time on the ward, the truth behind his story unfolds.  John seems to have certain powers  to enable him to save others who are in danger – but will it be enough to save himself?

I must preface thsi review by saying that I probably won’t be able to do this book justice here.  It really is a fabulous book, and I am anxious not to give away any spoilers, but I’ll say right at the outset that I loved it.

This story is something of a departure for Stephen King – the supernatural elements for which he is well known are all here, but this is not a horror story.  It is in fact an incredibly moving story, which was genuinely hard to put down.  The events are narrated at time far removed from when they actually happened (Edgecombe is, by the time of the telling of the story, an old man living in a retirement home), when racism was rife and the electric chair was seen as a fitting punishment for heinous crimes (by some – and maybe some would still see it as a fitting punishment, but it made me shudder).

The book was originally published as a six part serial, which explains some of the repititon at the beginning of each segment (the last part of the previous segment was repeated, obviously to remind the reader what had happened previously).  Obviously such repetition is redundant when reading the book in one go, but I think it actually helped the story along rather than detracted from it at all.  The writing is incredibly emotional in parts (I cried a few times, which is rare for me when reading a book), and although it is not a thriller as such, I still sometimes found myself holding my breath in anticipation of what was to follow.  The writing flows so well, and the main characters are all very well drawn (I especially liked Brutus Howell, Paul Edgecombe’s friend and colleague).

Overall it is a story that shows the very best and the very worst of humanity, it is a story of great power, and it is a story which I highly recommend to anybody.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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Click here for my review of the 1999 film adaptation.

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