Certain theatres have a mystique, a marque of quality that sets them apart; an assumption that a play must be good if it’s running there. The National Theatre, Royal Court and Shakespeare’s Globe are three such examples. Add to that list the Young Vic, just down the road from its older sibling in Waterloo. Like many modern theatres, the bar is set to the front entrance, creating a great atmosphere as you go in. The performance area is arranged amphitheatre style, with a catwalk platform running through the centre.
Billed as a dark comedy, the plot lands in the curiously named Rikers Island Prison. Angel Cruz (Ukweli Roach) is accused of murdering a cult leader and is due to stand trial. He strikes up a friendship with Lucius Jenkins (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), a serial killer who has found God. Angel struggles with the concept of a murderer looking for redemption, but Lucius’ influence is apparent, as Angel finds solace in a newly discovered faith. Mary Jane Hanrahan (Dervla Kirwan) is the lawyer assigned to represent Angel at trial. A sense of despondency grows as nice guy prison guard D’Amico (Matthew Douglas) retires and is replaced by sadistic Valdez (Joplin Sibtain).
There are some wickedly funny exchanges between the characters, which provide regular shots of relief in a moral conundrum. The play generates more light than heat, as Angel and Lucius engage in a series of verbal jousts. Amidst the jocularity are searching questions about life and religion. Does God unconditionally forgive our sins? Can faith ever be truly fulfilling? We can certainly see why prisoners might reach such epiphany; society may take their freedom but faith remains unfettered. The cast are quite superb, but Roach and Adjepong play the leading characters and garner the best lines, so their performance will linger longest in the memory.
As the play reached its climax I confidently ticked off the essentials: cast, script, direction and a brilliantly simple stage design. The action takes place in prison, but how exactly do we see inside a cell? Set designer Magda Willi solves this problem with glass partitions, creating a sense of tension and confinement. The tiniest fly in the ointment was the ‘musical’ interlude between scenes. I use inverted commas with good reason, as scene transitions were marked by an ear splitting blast of improvised jazz (remember the jazz club sketch from the Fast Show…nice..?!). Most people sitting near me physically flinched even though they knew it was coming (maybe I was sitting in the row for nervous people?) But I digress. Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a terrifyingly good play, carefully treading the line between drama and humour, with the confidence to ask searching questions.
Author: Stephen Adly Guirgis
Director: Kate Hewitt
Set Designer: Magda Willi
Producer: Young Vic
Box Office: 020 7922 2922
Booking Link: https://www.youngvic.org/whats-on/jesus-hopped-the-a-train
Booking Until: 30 March 2019