Old Vic Theatre, London – until 9 July 2022
About halfway through the first half of Jitney at the Old Vic, I had set my mind on leaving at the interval. I couldn’t connect with anything or see any signs of what it was building towards.
The rapid pace of the opening scene, where the drivers at Becker’s (Wil Johnson) jitney office are introduced, is a series of arrivals and departures punctuated by banter. No one character is around long enough to get familiar with, and I struggled to find the depth in the jibes and jokes.
It didn’t seem to be leading to anything, and it went on too long. It wasn’t until Rena (Leanne Henlon), the girlfriend of Vietnam vet Youngblood (Solomon Israel), turned up that I felt myself properly tuned in – and I decided to stay. Rena is the only female character and has two of the play’s most interesting scenes.
The jitney office is under threat from redevelopment. It’s in a deprived area but provides a vital service for the community as licensed cabs avoid the area.
Aside from Youngblood, for whom driving is one of three jobs he has, the other drivers are Fielding (Tony Marshall), who is an alcoholic, Doub (Geoff Aymer), a quiet, cautious Korean War vet and Turnbo (Sule Rimi) the volatile gossip. Shealy (Nnabiko Ejimofor) swaggers in to use the office for his betting operations, and the weary Becker tries to keep everyone in line between drives.
Rena has a young son with Youngblood and is holding down a job as well as attending college, but Turnbo lets on that he’s seen Youngblood with her sister. And then there is Becker’s son Booster (Leemore Marrett Jr), who is newly released from prison, having served nearly 20 years for murder. All have potential as dramatic tension, but none are properly explored.
There is almost a sense of resignation to the threat of closure. The scenes between Becker and his ex-convict son make for a really interesting conversation and are the ones which tugged on my emotions, but they left me wanting more.
And it’s the same with Rena and Youngblood, their confrontation and what comes out of it is an interesting reflection of the dynamics of a relationship, but it felt as if there was more material there to mine.
The thing is, you can’t fault the acting in Jitney at the Old Vic – the actors are superb. And Tinuke Craig’s expert direction means the cab office setting doesn’t feel static or forced. But the play takes a long time to get to the interesting stuff and then leaves a lot hanging.
Am I glad I stay for the second half? Yes, the play does get better. When it’s on point, it really does spark, but I’d get the red pen out and chop this play back in size.
For the acting, I’m giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️, but for the play, I’m giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️.
Jitney, Old Vic
Written by August Wilson
Directed by Tinuke Craig
Running time 2 hours and 50 minutes, including an interval
It is booking until 9 July; for more information and tickets, visit the Old Vic website.
Britannicus, Lyric Hammersmith ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Amy Adams in The Glass Menagerie, Duke of York’s Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️
The Ministry of Lesbian Affairs, Soho Theatre ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
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