Young Vic, London – until 30 March 2019
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Stephen Adley Guirgis doesn’t pull any punches with his tough, uncompromising prison drama Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at the Young Vic Theatre.
From the get-go this moody, visceral and absorbing revival makes the audience sit up and take notice, from the raucous, deconstructed bursts of music between scenes to Kate Hewitt’s dynamic staging and the bold performances from its cast of five.
It’s billed as a dark comedy but, while there are lines of gallows humour, this is a gritty, thought-provoking piece that questions the morals and ethics of justice, the prison system and redemption, huge themes that are crystallised into provocative story-telling.
It opens with Angel Cruz desperately trying to remember the words of the Lord’s Prayer while being shouted down by unseen voices. Cruz is in Rikers, New York’s infamous jail, on remand for attempted murder. He’s young, terrified, and has never been in prison before. What’s more this 30-year-old Puerto Rican bike messenger from Harlem is indignant that he’s even been arrested.
We’re immediately faced with a moral dilemma that will have theatre-goers discussing the pros and cons into the night. Cruz shot a cult leader after his best friend was snatched by the sect and, unfortunately for him, the injured man died on the operating table.
In a separate cage is psychopathic mass murderer and drug addict, Lucius Jenkins, who is awaiting extradition to Florida where he faces death by lethal injection. Jenkins has absolutely no remorse for what he did but, since his capture, he has found God and a rigorous keep fit regimen. Does either man deserve redemption and, worse, should they face the American penal system’s harshest penalties?
Ukweli Roach is hugely watchable as the misunderstood and angry Cruz. He’s belligerent and acts tough when he comes face to face with the public defender who has been assigned to him.
“I want a real lawyer, you know, one with a beard!” What he has is Dervla Kirwan’s equally tough-talking Irish-American defence attorney who isn’t beyond playing dirty if it is for a cause she believes in. And she believes in Angel.
There is a familiar set-up for A Train which fans of the genre will know from watching everything from TV’s Porridge to Shawshank.
Cruz is the frightened new fish, who claims he’s innocent, while Oberon KA Adjepong’s charismatic Jenkins knows the routine and acts as mentor.
And he appears to be a pleasant chap – always smiling, offering advice, determined to stay fit and healthy – until we’re jolted back to reality by the horror of his crimes.
Matthew Douglas plays easy-going guard, Charlie, whose wife does favours for the incarcerated but seemingly charming Jenkins.
But he’s soon replaced by a new cowboy. Joplin Sibtain is outstanding as the sadistic Valdez, who lays down the law on his arrival and prowls through the auditorium barking out orders and punishments.
Valdez is a physically imposing man who looks right at home, facing down the menacing Jenkins or stamping his authority on the aggrieved Angel.
A Train is heavy on language – by necessity as its subjects are usually kept in solitary cells – and, throughout, it is hostile and confrontational, delivered loud and strong, by men and women who know they can’t ever show any weakness or indecision (and spot-on accents from everyone).
Director Kate Hewitt’s taut production just about maintains the tension although the interval does rob the second half of some impetus. I think I would be tempted to play it straight through.
Magda Willi’s set is incredibly effective and clever. The simple transverse stage has two sets of glass doors on it which silently glide into place to confine the prisoners in cramped solitary cells or give them more space in a makeshift outside yard.
And Guy Hoare’s spare lighting design keeps the entire production dark and intimidating. It is incredibly atmospheric.
Shocking, brutal and electrifying, Guirgis rattles the cage of the US judicial system by focusing on two men facing its worst penalties.
Jesus Hopped the A Train runs at the Youth Vic until March 30.
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