Elysium Theatre Company
Jesus Hopped The A Train
by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Durham Assembly Rooms
Monday 14 May 2018
Manchester Home Theatre 2
Wednesday 16 – Saturday 19 May 2018
The Assembly Rooms Theatre, home predominately to student productions, welcomed its resident professional theatre company, Elysium Theatre Company, back for a second time with this production. This was the first time the play has ever been performed in the North of England.
‘One man’s neurotic is another man’s hero’, muses attorney Mary Jane Hanrahan during one of her contemplative asides in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. Not exactly a conclusive statement, but this is a play that denies its audience of any kind of clear-cut ‘conclusions’, preferring to ask questions and explore the grayscale between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Heroism and villainy is just one of the many dichotomies that we see dismantled through the patchwork of characters in this story.
The plot is largely centred around the trial of Angel Cruz, whose audience is asked to grapple with the ethics of his case alongside his morally conflicted defence lawyer. However, a large portion of the dialogue – and where the play really comes into its own – is made up of the conversations had between Angel and Lucius Jenkins, both inmates in the notorious Rikers Island Prison, New York. The two felons have provocative and heart-wrenching discussions during their daily hour of ‘outdoor time’ in neighbouring prison yard cages. Whilst, as reviews of the original production noted, the play has a tendency to be contrived and sluggish in its plot exposition, the purest moments come from these honest conversations between the cages, bringing humanity and profundity to the surface.
Designer Louis Price certainly wanted to get across the American setting; an imposing United States’ flag made up the backdrop of the set, which felt a little crude, but undoubtedly created a stark visual effect. Stark, stylish visuals were one of Elysium’s greatest successes in this production – the representation of cages through lighting and simple set pieces was stunning. Director Jake Murray had clearly thought carefully about the proxemics of the characters in relation to the set, and his choices always felt purposeful and effective, utilising the full depth of The Assembly Rooms Theatre’s long, narrow stage.
The musical tracks played between and within scenes were also excellently and appropriately chosen, and on the most part seamlessly woven into the action. It is a pity, however, that such precise thought had gone into some areas of the piece, but not into others. The choice to cast a white actor (Danny Solomon) as Angel, a Puerto Rican character, is a problematic one, and whilst I appreciate the constraints that smaller theatre companies are under, this decision felt to me to be a thoughtless one. Race is irrefutably an important facet of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train; therefore, to whitewash its protagonist is almost paradoxical, and undermines one of the key messages of the play.
That said, if we can overlook the appropriation of Solomon’s Latino accent and caricature-esque moustache, the performances given by all the cast members were highly convincing. Alice Bryony Frankham’s asides as Mary Jane were earnest and powerful, and Faz Singhateh was outstanding as the ‘reformed’ serial killer, Lucius, now a born-again Christian.
Elysium Theatre Company’s second production since their re-brand as a Northern-based theatre company undeniably packs a punch. Nonetheless, I would be interested to see them take on something a little closer to home: for a self-professed ‘Northern’ theatre company, they have thus far neglected to attempt a play actually set in the North. Elysium are offering Durham, in theory, something of a dynamic vision for theatre in the North-East, yet this production did not deliver in the way that I hoped it might. It was a shame that this came across as a mere import of a London or US production, rather than an organically Durham-made performance.
Review by Lucy Knight
Photos by Garth Williams.
On The Web:
Cast and Creatives:
Directed by Jake Murray
Produced by Hannah Ellis
Designed by Louis Price
Cast: Danny Solomon, Faz Singhateh and Alice Frankham
Manchester Home Theatre 2
16-19 May 2018, £12.50/ £10.50 (other concessions available)