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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Coyote On A Fence
Duchess Theatre       Spring 2004

This new play by American Bruce Graham is openly an anti-capital-punishment argument. It selects its data carefully and manipulates our emotions to further its cause.

But there is a rough honesty in the way it doesn't try to disguise its agenda, and it winds up acknowledging that the subject is more complex than a mere propaganda piece would admit.

You may very well be moved by parts of it, and will certainly be given things to think about.

The play is loosely based on an actual Texas inmate who spent his decade on death row publishing a newsletter for condemned men and writing positive obituaries for the executed.

His fictional counterpart, played by Ben Cross (yes, he of Chariots of Fire), is presented as an educated, intelligent, sensitive man, clearly no threat to society.

His own moral positions are shaken somewhat when he gets a new neighbour, a foul-talking bigoted redneck who burned down a black church, killing its entire congregation, and feels no remorse whatever.

Trying to convince himself that even this scum does not deserve execution is the hero's and the play's task.

To author Graham's credit, the task is not an easy one. In fact, as the play progresses, the moral waters get continually more muddied.

The redneck is a despicable human being, but he also has obvious mental problems that any competent lawyer could have used to save his life.

Meanwhile, we gradually realise that Ben Cross's character can only do his work by willing himself into a state of denial about his own crime.

An offstage character, introduced as the one positive influence in the bigot's unhappy life, turns out to have had the greatest negative effect on him. And the title refers to an anecdote told to illustrate society's legitimate need to protect itself from predators.

So what seemed at first like a simplistic propaganda piece turns out to have a more complex and uncertain point of view, and that can make for a very satisfying intellectual experience.

Unfortunately, much of the dramaturgy isn't as sophisticated or successful as the debate.

Forced to play a character presented for too much of the play as a plaster saint, Ben Cross goes further than you might imagine toward making him a believable and sympathetic human being.

But Alex Ferns as the bigot, Eric Loren as a reporter and Jo Martin as a guard can do little with roles that are one-dimensional symbols and straight men.

You ultimately won't engage with any of the characters as much as you will with the issues they represent - which does not make for great drama, but does let this little play do what it wants to do.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Coyote On A Fence - Duchess Theatre 2004

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