Young Vic, London – until 30 March 2019
At the interval, I turned to Poly and said: “This isn’t going to have a happy ending is it?” How Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train pans out isn’t quite how you imagine, or perhaps it is but that’s the genius of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ writing, he has a way of twisting the way you look at things.
Set in a New York prison, Angel (Ukweli Roach) is awaiting trial having shot a cult leader ‘in the ass’ in order to rescue his brain-washed friend. His lawyer (Dervla Kirwan) prides herself in turning around the most open and shut cases which is good for Angel because he’s holding a smoking gun and his charge sheet is about to get more serious.
While spending his hour a day out of his cell, Angel meets Lucius (Oberon K. A. Adjepong), a notorious murderer fighting a transfer to Florida where he’ll face the death penalty. The play explores faith, justice and what it means to be good.
Angel believes he is innocent because his intentions were just. Lucius doesn’t have any regrets but has found God and is at peace. Their abusive prison guard (Joplin Sibtain) believes he is good because he hasn’t broken any laws. Angel’s lawyer doesn’t so much believe in serving justice but in her own power and reputation.
Guirgis’ writing is slick and fast-paced and the cast doesn’t waste a word of it but if I have one criticism it is with the runway style staging designed by Magda Willi. Most of the scenes are two-handers with the actors positioned at opposite ends so you are watching a verbal tennis match, following the dialogue back and forth across the stage. However, this means you have to make decisions about who to watch and ultimately miss half the performance. You can’t easily enjoy the reactions if you watch the person who is talking and vice versa. It’s a shame given the calibre of the performances and, like the writing, you don’t want a second of it wasted.
Nonetheless, Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train is gripping from start to finish, laced with black humour and a play that will have you questioning your reactions and beliefs. I’m giving it four and a half stars.