The Road to Huntsville

Stephanie Ridings does a lecture on state homicide with drama. Framed on one level as a straightforward research project into Death Row, Ridings can’t help but get involved in another sense.

Ridings has acting chops and a knack for spinning a story. It’s the presentation that lets it down.

Death Row is where those deemed irredeemable await their execution. Many women fall in love with these men; it’s not clear why though we learn the affections described by the term hybristophilia, a condition of attraction to people who’ve committed gruesome acts. We don’t know why it happens and that lack of clarity is where the show deviates from stiff facts into drama.

The problem with this is that it’s not believable drama. In fact, Ridings comes off as disingenuous. She describes herself in the brief as “trying not to be judgemental”. There are, however, judgements made though I doubt she’d ever be considered scathing.

The concern regards how fake the show feels (and that’s not a meta-point she’s trying to establish, she’s indeed doing sincerity). Ridings tells us she went out on a limb and started correspondence with a Death Row inmate, Johnny.

His letters flash up on screen all typo’d and bona fide. Out of these letters comes a reason to visit him in Texas so she jumps on a plane and hops off, straining her rocky marriage. She’s wed to a man known as Stompy, a sly epithet because he stomps off when things go wrong - he may even stomp off here. So Ridings finds herself in a podunk town in Texas while her relationship with Johnny gets all the more difficult.

It sounds cutesy, and it is, especially the sugary jokes in the opening. This shouldn’t matter because the set up’s so fascinating. But Ridings doesn’t seem genuine. There’s this very unsettling moment when she shows footage of her crossing a bridge in a car (we’re told alone) but the shot’s established as though someone else is filming her. This uncanny feeling stays and isn’t lifted, not even in the unrestrained climax. It doesn’t matter how real the reportage is, what matters is that it doesn’t feel real.

The uber homely manner, the text messages shared between her and her husband, the narrative arc to a real-life event - it all doesn’t seem candid. And that’s a shame; Ridings has acting chops and a knack for spinning a story. It’s the presentation that lets it down. 

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The Blurb

‘I’m trying to understand why British women fall in love with men on death row. I’m corresponding with Jonny, incarcerated in Texas. I’m trying to understand how the death penalty fits into our world. I’m trying not to be judgmental.’ This is an exploration into unconventional love, state homicide and challenging preconceptions. Stephanie Ridings is a writer/performer. Her most recent work, Unknown Male, opened at Birmingham Repertory Theatre to critical acclaim and was awarded the 2014 Peter Brook/Mark Marvin Award. In March 2016, she created Dylan’s Parents for Live Lunch at the Royal Court.