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Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train review at Young Vic, London – ‘stylishly staged and superbly performed’

Oberon K A Adjepong and Ukweli Roach in Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train at Young Vic, London. Photo: Johan Persson
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Pulitzer-winner Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2000 play about two inmates at New York City’s infamous Rikers Island jail is structurally squiffy. Its philosophical questions are too diffuse and ill-defined to truly grip, but it’s still a powerful piece of work, as this slick, scorching production by rising star Kate Hewitt makes clear.

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train tells the story of Angel, a doubt-filled Puerto Rican prisoner awaiting trial, and Lucius, an evangelical African-American inmate already convicted of multiple homicides, through their righteous, rambling chats during the one hour a day they’re allowed out of solitary confinement.

These are interspersed with other scenes featuring Angel’s hard-nosed lawyer (Dervla Kirwan) and a sadistic prison guard (Joplin Sibtain), but the focus is on these two, and their wrestling with religion, with racism, and with the American justice system.

Guirgis doesn’t quite draw out the nuances of their separate struggles, but he more than makes up for it with his exquisite dialogue. The scenes between Angel and Lucius are the theatre equivalent of the 2008 Wimbledon Final between Nadal and Federer – captivating, rapid-fire rallies with rhythm, texture and tempo.

Hewitt stylishly squeezes the play on to Magda Willi’s long, thin set, separating scenes with blackouts, cascading drums and squealing trumpets. Her cast are superb, too, particularly Ukweli Roach and American actor Oberon K A Adjepong in the central roles – both delve dextrously into Guirgis’ writing. The entire staging borders on the flawless making this a pretty nearly perfect production of an imperfect play.

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Stylishly staged, superbly performed production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2000 play about two Rikers Island inmates