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Stuart King

Review: JESUS HOPPED THE “A” TRAIN at The Young Vic Theatre

Until the end of March, the Young Vic’s main house plays host to JESUS HOPPED THE “A” TRAIN - Stephen Adly Guirgis’ darkly comedic tale set in the bowels of the American justice system where one man’s redemption is another’s damnation.

Oberon K. A. Adjepong and Joplin Sibtain in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan PerssonOberon K. A. Adjepong and Joplin Sibtain in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at the Young Vic. Photo by Johan Persson

Penned back in 2000, with its first off-Broadway production benefiting from the deft hand of a young Philip Seymour Hoffman on the directorial tiller, the play quickly garnered an avid following leading to other productions around the globe including Donmar Warehouse’s 2002 incarnation.

Whilst the ‘fearful-new-inmate-encountering-sage-prison-lag’ premise, has been tried on for size many times before, most lead to a fairly conventional outcome. “A” Train, mirroring life itself, aims to prove to both the doubters and believers that more things in life (and death) have shades of grey, than are simply ever black and white. Right, wrong, faith, truth, honesty, deception are all scrutinised, mocked, deconstructed, derided and put on pedestals during the course of the play, but not merely as some exercise in abstraction; rather, their very existence is aligned to events as they unfold, so the analysis interweaves as part of the play’s narrative... (which it should be noted, is adorned throughout with the sort of muscular NYC penitentiary speak we have come to expect from reality prison documentaries. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but flows incredibly well).

If you are looking for clichés, sure enough they are here - notably, the presence of a menacingly self-assured and sanctimonious prison guard Valdez (Joplin Sibtain striking a near perfect balance) and the frequent visitations by a lawyer from the overworked public defender’s office Mary Jane Hanrahan (Dervla Kirwan knitting a whole back story neatly into the plot) who jeopardises her own career for the sake of testing one of the aforementioned grey areas of right and wrong.

But the great strength of the piece is the rapid fire dialogue - particularly those sections between the terrified new inmate Angel Cruz (Ukweli Roach traversing his emotional journey with relish) and the initially reassuring death row long-termer Lucius Jenkins who has found god and is eager to share him (Oberon K A Adjepong imbuing an agile mischievousness to his desperate situation). Their dismantling of life, behaviours, societal injustice, the nature of faith, individuality, morality, responsibility and forgiveness are delivered across a walkway divided by two glass doorways and an immense difference in life experience. One inmate is surely innocent of genuine, intentional wickedness yet is introspective, nervous, uncommunicative and largely difficult to warm to. The other is a notorious, convicted, serial killer with an effortless and engaging manner to which nearly all willingly succumb. When the murderer is an astute thinker about personal responsibility and the non-believer is a petulant man-child praying to be spared it, the dilemma no-longer resides simply on stage, but in our own conflicted emotional responses.

As with Magda Willi’s set design, this reviewer couldn’t find anything particularly noteworthy in Kate Hewitt’s direction, but that in itself is perhaps the best commendation, for the dialogue needs little in the way of additional flourishes.