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A hard-hitting two-man play set in an American penitentiary, “As We Forgive Them” stars Hull-born Marc Pickering (Sleepy Hollow, Boardwalk Empire) and Charles Daish (Hamlet), both of them actors who have undeniably earned their stripes.

Written by Richard Vergette, and directed by Andrew Pearson, the tense drama focuses as much on the American education system as it does politics, with Pickering’s character, Lee Fenton, a convicted murderer on Death Row, Fenton having been charged with the murder of Senator Daniels’ teen-aged daughter.

Incredibly, Daniels has forgiven Fenton, so much so that he regularly visits him in prison. Having ascertained that Fenton can barely read or write, Daniels takes it upon himself to educate Fenton as best he can.

Understandably suspicious of Daniels’ motives, Fenton lashes out, his foul mouth forking out all manner of expletives. In spite of Fenton’s hostility, Daniels perseveres, believing that well-educated people are less likely to get caught up in crime. As time goes by (four years to be precise), Fenton appears to soften, to be wholly accepting of Daniels’ help, even if his “special relationship” with the senator does him no favours amongst fellow inmates.

With Scene 1 set in 2008, Scene 2 in 2012 and Scene 3 in 2016, the play cleverly incorporates actual dates of political importance, with Scene 3 having effectively “played out” in real-time given that it was set on 9 November, the day of the American Election result.

Sloping back onto the stage in dour mood, Daniels makes it obvious that something is wrong with him from the outset of the final scene, his usually chipper mood having taken a battering. When Fenton probes, Daniels reveals that the Election didn’t go his way, rendering him without his dream job. In short, such an outcome means that Daniels will no longer be meeting with Fenton in order to discuss the books he’s been reading. Fenton reacts by accusing Daniels of only ever deciding to help him in order to raise his own public profile by being a “do-gooder.”

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Indeed, come the climax of the play, the audience is left on tenterhooks, wondering if Fenton forgives Daniels, as ironic as such a notion sounds.

As challenging as it is riveting, “As We Forgive Them” deftly debates the importance of education, not to mention the importance of being brought up within a stable family unit.

Acting on a stripped-back stage, perfectly replicating an austere penitentiary environment, Ed Ullyart has once again designed a stage-set that works on all levels, enabling Lighting Designer Simon Bedwell to illuminate the characters as he sees fit.

Pickering, unrecognisable from previous roles, proves a revelation, which comes as little surprise given the huge variety of experience that he’s had in countless theatre productions, big-budget movies and TV shows over the years. Daish, meanwhile, lives and breathes his role as Senator Daniels, his Tom Hanks-sounding accent unfaultable. Pickering, too, can pull off an American accent as though it’s the easiest thing in the world to do.

Running at the ERT until 26 November, “As We Forgive Them” represents yet another unmissable slice of high drama, presented in one of the finest “mini-theatres” in Britain.

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(Steve Rudd)

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