Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train

Stephen Adly Guirgis
Elysium Theatre Company
HOME, Manchester
16 May 2018 to 19 May 2018

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped The 'A' Train feels like a throwback to the days when authors were willing to raise complex questions and avoid glib answers.

Distraught that his best friend has fallen under the malign influence of a religious cult Angel Cruz (Danny Solomon) wounds the cult leader. But when the leader expires on the operating table Angel is accused of murder on a legal technicality.

Eager for a challenge and to prove just how good she is at her job attorney Mary Jane Hanrahan (Alice Frankham) goes against her professional judgement and defends Angel in court. But plans go awry when Angel engages in debate about religion and personal responsibility with the manipulative serial killer Lucius Jenkins (Faz Singhateh) who claims that he has now found God and become deeply religious.

There are no easy answers in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Angel may have had noble, if confused, motives but we are asked to consider if that excuses his actions. Lucius Jenkins is a psychopathic killer but can he be held accountable for his actions after sexual and physical abuse may have twisted his mind? To make matters even more satisfyingly complex an early scene establishes that Jenkins is capable of manipulating the prison guards to gain privileges so we can never be sure whether or not he is simply playing with Angel for his own amusement. There is also a surprising degree of dark humour running through the play especially with a character bemoaning the incompetence of medical staff who cannot extract a bullet from someone’s posterior. 

The setting for Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train places severe limitations on the staging. As the characters are incarcerated there are no opportunities for physical action. The play is essentially a series of monologues and duologues so director Jake Murray exploits the underlying violence in the muscular script to build the tension between the characters leading to a towering confrontation between Solomon and Singhateh.

The production is heavily dependent upon the quality of the cast and the performances are strong. Alice Frankham finds the insecurity that bubbles under the tightly-wound apparently confident attorney. The limited options for physical acting are actually beneficial to Faz Singhateh allowing him to suggest the blazing rage that Lucius Jenkins is containing with tight, constrained gestures and powerful vocals. Danny Solomon gives a heartrending performance; opening as someone who does not appreciate the trouble he has got himself into before subtly drawing out the bewildered sense of hurt and loss that have pushed Angel Cruz to a desperate act.

As yet the production does not seem to have entirely settled in. The last-minute addition of an interval catches the audience off-guard and the presence of a guard on-stage giving a verbal countdown throughout does not really build the tension in the way one might expect. Even so one has to appreciate the willingness of Elysium Theatre Company to take a chance and bring to the region a play that, until now, has not been staged north of Watford and hope that they continue with this admirable practice.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

Comments

Comment by David Chadderton

I entirely agree with David's perceptive assessment. I thought that it would have benefitted from an extra week's rehearsal, but I doubt the budget for half a week's run in a small auditorium with five people on stage would run to this (despite charging a pound for a single sheet of A4 as a programme).

I didn't see Solomon's award-nominated last performance for Elysium, but he is certainly impressive in this production, as is Alice Bryony Frankham as his lawyer. Singhateh mostly impresses, but there were moments in his pages-long monologues that I thought needed clearer expression.

Some of the arguments about religion and morality—they are often confused in the play as in real life—go round in circles a bit, but there are some interesting debates in here and the humour, when it comes, is often proper belly-laugh stuff, which is surprising and welcome (as was the interval after an hour on those uncomfortable bench seats).

And two Pulitzer Prize-winning authors running at HOME simultaneously is pretty impressive (even if Guirgis didn't win his for this play).

Comment by David Upton

Should you be hunting around for a debate on moral responsibility, and religious belief, you might not normally start looking in two adjacent prison cages of New York’s notorious Rikers Island penitentiary.

As fellow Davids attest, it's a raw version of this significant play but it is still a compliment to the small-scale Elysium theatre company, and director Jake Murray (whose early work graced the city’s Royal Exchange, where his father Braham was artistic director), that it should finally be experienced in the region.

A freewheeling and profanity-driven discourse on the rights and wrongs of two killers' respective plights.

It’s not so much a moral maze they enter, as a cul-de-sac of conscience.

From the expletive-laden Lord’s Prayer at the beginning, to its dark conclusion, it pulls no punches, but with a motormouth eloquence offers a glimpse of humanity where it might least be expected.

At first glance it looks and sounds like the discarded out-takes from some boxed-set TV series, or an exercise in purposefully-violent writing, but Guirgis plays with theatrical style and content, delivering straight-to-audience monologues in between his central heated narrative.

The young female lawyer (Alice Bryony Frankham) and two sharply-contrasting prison warders (Garth Williams and Alastair Gillies) are pretty well consumed in the blaze of this deadly debate, but it is the spitting and snarling central performances by Danny Solomon and Faz Singhateh that command attention throughout.

Credit to HOME for staging it in their intimate Theatre 2 – and for introducing an interval break from that especially-uncomfortable bench seating!