A couple of years ago Stephen Adly Guirgis' play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
had a large-scale production at the Almeida. Now his earlier prison drama, Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train
, which also deals partly in religious debate, gets a smaller-scale but very effective revival at Trafalgar Studios from Synergy, a company that specialises in theatre in and about prison (this production features a mix of professional actors and ex-cons plus one former prison warden.) Lucius (Ricky Fearon) is a mass murderer awaiting extradition to Florida and lethal injection when he gets there; he's found religion in prison, rather conveniently ("it would have been more convenient if God had spoken to me before
I killed those people.") The only other prisoner in Ryker's "VIP" section for at-risk inmates is Angel (Theo Jones,) who shot a cult leader in the ass as revenge for him brainwashing his best friend. When complications in surgery to remove the bullet lead to a heart attack, he finds himself on a murder charge. The two talk to each other through a fence during the one hour a day they're allowed out of their cells, and among other things their very different views on religion crop up.
Guirgis throws in a lot of big themes here, not just the issues of faith but personal responsibility, friendship, cults and big business, a lawyer's ethical dilemma versus her ambition and arrogance... It's a rather scattergun approach but while it means there's no chance of coming to any kind of conclusion about any of them, it certainly makes you think. Despite the overall serious tone there's also no shortage of funny lines, the best probably being when Angel describes how the surgeons should
have performed the remove-bullet-from-ass operation that killed his victim ("Take a scalpel, cut open ass. Anything that isn't ass, remove it.") All this is helped hugely by Esther Baker's tight production, which doesn't take sides.
It's far from perfect: It takes a while to get going - it only really
feels as if the story has kicked into gear once the two prisoners meet, 45 minutes in; a sadistic prison guard (Dominic Taylor, the one who once did the job for real) is a bit of an obvious inclusion and not much more than a plot device; and after it being made clear in the first act that lawyer Mary Jane (Denise Gough) is unable to represent Angel in court, I wasn't sure if I missed an explanation for why, in the second act, she's doing just that. But overall there's more right with the show than wrong with it. In Lucius, the "Black Plague," Guirgis has created a scarily magnetic monster, and in Fearon they've found a force of nature to play him. It's a tribute to Jones and the rest of the cast that they even manage to keep up with him.Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train
by Stephen Adly Guirgis is booking until the 24th of April at Trafalgar Studio 2.