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Downstate – National Theatre

Downstate - National Theatre

The complexities of the justice system in the UK and America have been a keen focus for playwrights in recent times, and while in theory the trial-sentence-release process ensures that perpetrators are punished for the requisite time depending on their crime, in practice it can be a far more emotive experience. While the Young Vic’s high-quality dramas Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train and The Jumper Factory have give us an insight into the different pressures of prison life, what happens next can be even more difficult when an offender is released back into the community. James Graham showed us in Quiz that Charles Ingram’s family suffered continual abuse and even attacks on their pets just for allegedly cheating on a game show, but if your crime is far more serious that, is justice ever really served?

Co-produced by the National Theatre, Bruce Norris’s Downstate premiered in the US last autumn and now makes its UK debut in the Dorfman. What looks like a normal suburban house is the transitional location for a group of sex offenders who have served their sentences and are now part of a phased release programme. All four of them have convictions for paedophilic activity, the nuances of which, during the course of this 2.5-hour show, the audience learns more about, while understanding the effect this has had on their lives. Catalysed by a confrontation with one of their (now adult) victims, Downstate consistently shifts our sympathies, asking difficult questions about the appropriateness of penalties meted out by the legal system, if there really is a sliding-scale of heinous acts and whether we should try to see the humanity within those who commit them.

At the heart of this play is a concern that no punishment will ever be enough, that whatever the crime – but especially with the serious offences under discussion here – the effect on the victim is far greater than any legal redress, a question playwrights have grappled with for a long time. Shakespeare essentially wrote about this 400 years ago when his Merchant of Venice anti-hero demanded a “pound of flesh”, a revenge theme that has resonated through subsequent crime dramas down the centuries. In Downstate, this manifests in two ways, first in the seemingly cosy existence of the four men in a nice house that in relation to their crimes initially causes the audience to recoil, and second through the character of Andy, a “survivor” whose life has been enduringly affected, who demands to be heard when his abuser is unexpectedly released into this environment.

Norris has chosen the quite traditional domestic setting and structure that is so prevalent in American drama, steering away from the David Mamet-like spare prose and focus on masculinity, that owes much to the hard-boiled simplicity of film noir dialogue, which is a more usual frame for male-centric plays. Downstate instead offers a discursive drama about a dysfunctional homestead, with a feeling of Tracy Letts in the creation of a pseudo-family battling external intrusions. Its fascinating subject-matter makes for several compelling duologues as characters spar with each other and reality, asking the audience to consider whether some crimes are absolute or if there are gradations of guilt and repentance that should offer the chance of rehabilitation. But Norris’s dramatic structure yields few surprises, and is, arguably, rather formulaic – although in performance this is less of a negative that it sounds.

While a major revelation at the end of part two is pretty easy to guess, signalled as it is rather too obviously at the start of the Act, each ex-offender, as you might expect, is given the opportunity to tell and occasionally justify his story. While The Jumper Factory purposefully withheld the nature of the protagonist crime, and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train retained some ambiguity about the guilt of its lead character, there is still much to take from Norris’s concept, particularly the apparent remorselessness of the men in the house, or at least the feeling that they have made peace with their past, served their sentence and moved on.

To explore this idea we are given two particularly compelling character-driven discussions that dominate each Act to dig deep into the thought processes and behaviour of the men in the house. Our sympathies and allegiances are intriguingly tested as Parole Officer Ivy (a superb and chilling Cecilia Noble fresh from her scene-stealing performance in Nine Night) confronts silent housemate Felix (Eddie Torres) who, thus far, has kept himself to himself, quietly eating cereal in his room and trying to stay out of sight. It’s a revelatory conversation that twists and turns brilliantly as Ivy questions Felix on his GPS tracking data that proves he had transgressed the boundaries of his freedom.

As the evidence is presented coldly to Felix, initially you feel for him a small struggle for a moment of liberation and desire to be close to his family that becomes quite affecting. What happens in the next 10-minutes is remarkable drama as Noble’s Ivy plays ace after ace shifting our perspective on the truth and eventually the shocking nature of Felix’s original crime. Torres is excellent in his big moment, suggesting a conviction in the early moments of this discussion that starts to win you round, while delivering some well-timed emotional reactions that reveal his desperate fear and underlying failure to recognise and control his own responses.

In Act Two, this is mirrored in a confrontation between Andy, Fred and Dee which is equally dramatic, a stew of conflicting information and interactions that pushes the audience to see things from every side. The erupting rage of Tim Hopper’s Andy as he is compelled to confront Fred is balanced by the ordinary domesticity of their lodgings and the calm, easy interactions between the housemates. There is a brief period of reminiscence between abuser and victim as they talk fondly of Fred’s piano lessons, a golden age before the predatory teacher made his move. Norris hints that Andy had his own problematic family from which Fred became a welcome respite but also implies an unsevered connection between the men, that Hopper uses in his performance to show the hold of Fred’s charisma despite himself.

As the discussion loops around and Andy pushes to regain his ground, his encounter with Dee is designed to bruise and confound. And seen from a purely theatrical perspective Norris builds the drama well to reveal a level of delusion that affects them all, both men convinced that his perspective is the truth. K Todd Freeman’s Dee, a former theatre Dance Captain with a devotion to Diane Ross in Lady Sings the Blues, is perhaps Downstate’s most unknowingly tragic creation, grown caustic and cynical by time but with a softer heart beneath. He manages the household while caring for the wheelchair-bound Fred yet refuses to believe his own crime is akin to those around him, Nor does he accept that Andy’s desire for purification as anything less than indulgent weakness. The discussion is compellingly written and performed even if Norris’s approach to playing one truth against the other, and Andy’s exposure feel uncomfortable.

The latter is one of the most challenging aspects of Norris’s play, not so much for the content (although there is graphic anatomical description in the second half as part of a legal document) but for the way in which the writer challenges our perspective on “victimhood”, forcing us to  wonder, uncomfortably, who is behaving reasonably in this context. The way in which Andy’s testimony is presented is almost clinical as he tries to read a prepared statement to former piano teacher Fred at the start of the play. It is a recitation of facts delivered with subdued emotion, an outline of events and their consequences presented, at this stage, as a formality that masks Andy’s deeper pain.

It is only later, when Andy fails to feel the catharsis he craves, that he returns in Act Two for a second, more explosive, confrontation that draws the home’s “matriarch” Dee into the conversation. And it is here where Norris’s approach becomes much harder to reconcile as Andy angrily demands Fred takes ownership of the hurt that he feels and the broken consequences of his life by signing a legal confession of culpability that outlines the specific acts committed. Yet, Norris has spent the intervening hour opening out the lifestyle and personalities of the household to us, showing them as a group of now quite vulnerable men trying to survive within ever chastening boundaries that casts Andy’s outburst in a slightly different light, making it seem hysterical and perhaps even, inappropriate.

As the tension rises in what is an increasingly fraught interchange between the three men, Dee accuses Andy of being obsessed, of refusing to move on from something that happened more than 30-years before and drawing on his own childhood trauma to suggest Andy’s essential weakness. It is a tough conversation to stomach with Norris’s point being that cause and effect is never as straightforward as it looks and behaviour patterns have many origins, yet the facts of Andy’s abuse are never in question so this unpicking of an undisputed victim’s story feels particularly problematic and even unnecessarily cruel. While Dee’s own viewpoint is shown to be potentially delusional at other points in the play, this inability to build-up the humanity of the perpetrators without tearing down their victims is something Downstate never satisfactorily resolves, and it leaves a bitter after taste.

This is reinforced by the play’s final character, Gio (Glenn Davis),  the youngest of the group, on a 15-month transition for the statutory rape of a girl he thought was 17. Davis’s performance continually distances Gio from the other inhabitants, his arrogance causing spikey clashes with Dee as the men wrangle over the seriousness of their offences. While you might admire the character’s determination that one mistake won’t prevent him from building a future as a business owner, he too is unrepentant, claiming himself the victim of unfortunate circumstances ensnared by a woman he suggests has gone on to teenage pregnancy and notoriety, which, like Andy, turns the tables on the victim with a purpose that never feels entirely clear.

Whether the crimes of these men are absolutely the same or relative is an impossible question, you see their humanity in Norris’s writing and while in theory they have served their time, even in this theatrical hypothetical scenario the group’s lack of remorse muddies the waters considerably. With excellent performances there are some really engrossing moments that tackle difficult questions about justice head-on, yet, the undermining of victim statements and personalities, however delusional the perpetrator, is never properly justified by Downstate’s discursive approach. Whether rehabilitation is truly possible for such serious crimes,Norris never really decides, leaving only a dramatically engaging but morally troubling outcome.

Downstate is at the National Theatre until 27 April with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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Betrayal – Harold Pinter Theatre

Tom Hiddleston in Betrayal (by Marc Brenner)

Based on his own real-life affair, Betrayal is the most emotionally resonant and affecting of Pinter’s plays, and a clever choice to mark the end of what has been an astoundingly good season of work from The Jamie Lloyd Company. A key characteristic of Pinter at the Pinter has been to show the extraordinary range, style and depth of the writer’s shorter works, allowing audiences to truly understand the different layers of his writing – the comic Pinter, the political Pinter and, in some of the season’s most memorable moments, the emotive Pinter, able to move an entire room with a turn of phrase.

Betrayal is a profoundly affecting play, one that is not only fully alive on the page but it sings, every line, every word carefully and sparingly chosen bursts with the characters’ repressed feelings, unspoken affections and the acres of unfillable space that opens-up between them as the play unfolds in reverse. And that’s before you add three of our finest actors to the mix, who demonstrate the phenomenal control Pinter had over his dialogue and the effect he intended to create, as well as those famous pauses which far from empty silence are loaded with tension and tragedy in this stunning new production.

The fact that Betrayal is told backwards is more than a fancy dramatic trick, it adds a heavy weight of inevitability to proceedings, showing the audience how easily meaning can change over time and highlighting the various layers of character interactions. Nothing is quite what it seems on the surface, and like real life conversations, the triangular lovers rarely say what they mean, at least not in full. So many incidences referenced with a throw-away remark earlier in the play (but chronologically later) appear different, more loaded when Pinter takes you back to really look at them, while so much is left unsaid or merely inferred. As the sands constantly shift between Emma, Jerry and Robert, Pinter leaves you wondering that if love can so easily disappear, was it ever really there at all?

What is clear from Lloyd’s fascinating interpretation is that the doomed love affair at its heart is the play’s biggest red herring.  There are few directors who understand Pinter better than Lloyd and here the audience is shown several types of duality within the text; first there is a conversational artifice in many of the scenes that belie the different levels of truth that occur throughout the play. These exchanges between the characters can sound a little stilted, even awkward or slightly unreal which here the actors sometimes deliver in a slightly heightened tone. The purpose is two-fold, to show how intimacy sours as close acquaintances and lovers retreat back into reticence – emphasised in the opening scene in which Emma and Jerry meet several years after their affair ended – and secondly to consciously hide their perspective from each other, as Robert frequently does when alone with Jerry.

The second type of duality refers to truth, how honest the characters are about what they’re doing and, crucially, what they already know. For most of Betrayal’s 90-minute run-time, the audience knows more than any one of the characters on stage, and what the characters do know they frequently keep to themselves. It is in only the second scene, after his reunion with Emma that a frantic Jerry learns for the first time that Robert (his best friend) had known about their liaison for some time – and later Pinter takes us back to that rather crucial revelation.

This withholding of truth from Jerry is mirrored in similar instances throughout the play; Emma doesn’t tell Jerry that Robert knows, Jerry never tell Robert about the affair directly, and Robert never confronts Jerry once he does find out. “You don’t seem to understand that I don’t give a shit about any of this” Robert tells him the aftermath, a truth he presumably withheld from his wife as well. The central affair is then a red herring, a betrayal of course but by no means the only, or even the most significant, betrayal in the play.

What Lloyd does to such astonishing effect in this production is to choreograph every single movement with incredible precision. All three actors remain on-stage throughout but appear together in only a limited number of scenes. The “third” person becomes a shadowy presence between whoever is talking, a permanent, ominous other shading the interplay between the talking couple, all inextricably linked by their complex relationship.

Position and movement is key to marking the rhythm of Pinter’s work, and these changes occur to match the different beats in the dialogue with all three performers, whether in the scene or not, changing position at key moments. Using only the project titles that have been a feature of the Pinter at the Pinter season to mark transitions, scenes flow effortlessly into one another, and Lloyd uses this careful repositioning and the double revolve in the centre of a blank impassive box, designed with style by Soutra Gilmour, to change location, time and mood, allowing the interactions to take focus as they become knottier and more weighted with emotion.

In the early scenes, the actors are at odds and kept largely at a distance from each other; Emma and Jerry sit side-by-side for their pub reunion barely seeing the other, while Robert’s confession in the next scene happens with Jerry on the other side of the stage, reflecting the huge emotional hinterland that has opened up between them. Physical proximity comes later when the artifice of conversation and distance fall away to reveal emotional anguish beneath the surface, something which builds slowly but to great effect under Lloyd’s direction.

In many ways it is Robert who is really at the heart of this play and his friendship with Jerry is something both go to extreme lengths to preserve at great cost to themselves. Alone, Jerry and Emma speak often of Robert, and it is the thought of his despair and protection of his friend that sends Jerry immediately to face the music in Scene Two. Likewise, while on holiday in Venice, Jerry is the key subject for Emma and Robert too, when the latter seems more offended not to be referenced in a crucial letter than the revelation that threatens to unravel their lives. Throughout, Emma and Jerry are searching for ways to be close to Robert, his distance sends Emma into the arms of the man who knows him best, while Jerry seeks out Robert’s wife as a way of holding-on to their friendship when marriage and careers send them in opposite directions.

Purposefully, none of the characters are particularly likeable and despite its focus on infidelity it is play without a victim. To avoid the sympathetic cuckold label Robert admits to having hit his wife because he just wanted to give her ‘a good bashing. The old itch… you understand’. Pinter shows us the kind of man he is upfront, not to be pitied and, as we soon discover, just as unfaithful as his wife has been. Like his superbly brutish Coriolanus, and as a genuinely great stage actor, Tom Hiddleston shows us the complexities of Robert’s character, almost coldly withdraw at the start, approaching the end of his marriage with a blasé acceptance that suggests no deeper hurt beneath the bonhomie of his conversation.

Later we come to realise that Robert’s disassociation stems from years of withdrawal from Emma. A crucial scene in which he learns of her affair is superbly played and you see Hiddleston’s Robert achingly hesitant to introduce a conversation that will confirm his worst fears. The uncertainty subtly flickers across his face as he looks for an opening, eventually blundering in unable to restrain himself any longer. What follows is painfully sad as he accepts the news quietly and resignedly, full of those famous pauses loaded with heavy and heartfelt sorry which Hiddleston performs well as Roberts absorbs the shock and falls to into silent contemplation.

In the following section set in the same month, Robert has a strange lunch with Jerry in which he cannot tell his friend he knows the truth. Instead he engages in a brittle and artificial conversation about Venice and the happy moment he spent alone on Torcello. The audience knows this trip occurred after he found out, and while sections of the audience laugh through the overt chomping of melon and prosciutto, what is really going on in this scene is a man desperate for things to seem normal again, swallowing his fears and, sitting across from his greatest friend, trying to decide if he can live with the lie. It’s quietly devastating, and the pain that Hiddleston so subtly suggests is very moving, even deeply tragic, a high point of the show.

Zawe Ashton’s Emma is equally complicated, her adoration of Jerry cast into doubt by the circumstantial spitefulness of her choices. Not only does she throw herself fairly easily (as the final scene suggests) into an affair with her husband’s best friend who drunkenly pays her attention and then calls him the instant her marriage disintegrates, but she is thought to be in the midst of a fresh affair with a writer called Casey who Jerry obviously despises. From the start, Ashton takes Pinter’s cues to suggest a woman whose need to be desired and love of secrecy balances out the declarations of love she makes both to Jerry and eventually Robert.

But Ashton finds the sympathy and humanity in her too. There is a genuine sadness in the break-up scene at their flat in Kilburn as they both come to realise whatever they had has withered. Ashton is excellent throughout often implying that her feeling for Jerry was always so much stronger than his attachment to her, but is particular good in this scene as the atmosphere between them veers between the practicalities of what to do with the flat and its furniture to the wasted opportunity that their mutual lack of effort has engendered. Similarly, she knows exactly what Robert is driving at in Venice where the need to be honest when directly confronted results in loaded silences and long-held stares that Ashton heaps with complex meaning.

As Jerry, Charlie Cox has an equally nuanced and interesting approach to excavating the changing experience of his character. Jerry’s key concern throughout appears to be protecting his friendship with Robert, and while he is occasionally affectionate to Emma at the height of their affair, Cox shows how remote he becomes from her in many of their more intimate scenes. When she speaks he is often slumped in a chair, gives a cursory answer to her entreaties while, at times, is emotionally and physically dismissive or cruel as his work draws the pair apart.

Contrast this with the frantic fear and remorse that Cox demonstrates in Robert’s presence in that crucial second scene, the concern that his friend will despise him dominating all other responses. It is Emma who remembers the details of their affair, times, places and key occurrences, yet Jerry remembers Robert’s speech about reading Yeats on Torcello, taking a keener interest in his friend than his lover. This ambiguity is equally compelling and repellent in Cox’s performance who brings similar layers of meaning to his interactions with the couple he came between. Hiddleston, Ashton and Cox are a superb trio that individually carve out their own characters using Pinter’s precise and evocative dialogue while filling the spaces in between with a growing feeling of heartbreak that builds so well as the play unfolds.

As a finale to the Pinter at the Pinter season, this couldn’t be better, gripping, full of meaning and so very moving. You’ll need a walk home or have a quiet sit down afterwards to properly process it. Betrayal is the kind of play that stirs the feelings, unsettling and savage at times, but also sad and beautiful. With three exceptional performances full of complexity and feeling, innovative direction that enhances the themes of the play and an intensity that grips you entirely, Betrayal is everything you could hope for. The Pinter at the Pinter season has set a very high standard for itself, but what a swansong this has turned out to be.

Betrayal is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 1 June with tickets from £15. There is a £15 Betrayal Rush scheme every Monday at 12pm for anyone under 30 who is a keyworker or in receipt of Job-Seekers Allowance. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


The Jumper Factory – Young Vic

The Jumper Factory - Young Vic (by Leon Puplett)

Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first season as Young Vic Artistic Director is now hitting its stride. Beginning with a musical Twelfth Night, that may not have been to everyone’s taste, it certainly emphasised The Young Vic’s passion for community and diversity in every aspect of production and performance. Since that inaugural show, The Convert garnered rave reviews as did Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train which is still playing to deserved acclaim in the main house. But, in the small space upstairs shorter runs of experimental, in-development and community-led one-act plays are also a notable part of the programme, not least Luke Barnes’s The Jumper Factory developed with the inmates of HMP Wandsworth.

Prison and theatre have a long history and there are countless full-length plays set in various parts of the criminal justice system from classic courtroom plays including Twelve Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution to more recent smaller-scale works that look at the root causes of young male disillusion that leads to cycles of antisocial behaviour and violence, charted so well in Barrie Keeffe’s Barbarians which premiered at the Young Vic in 2015. Yet, the plays that focus on the containment and strictures of prison life often give the strongest sense of a system so broken that the purpose to punish or rehabilitate remains unclear, including Esther Freud’s Stitchers which had it’s first outing at the Jermyn Street Theatre last June and Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.

Barnes’s play starts by breaking the fourth wall, the actors step forward and make it clear that what we are about to see was created inside Wandsworth prison by its incarcerated men, that the stories, incidences and experiences relayed belong to people who are still there serving their time. For 45-minutes the audience may be gripped, stimulated and entertained but this remains the everyday experience of all the men who contributed to the show, and it slightly changes our mindset to have this made clear at the start.

Before The Jumper Factory settles into story-telling mode, the actors also share their own brushes with the law either through a minor conviction for chasing a fox, a prison-guard brother or friends they have visited inside. Decisively, they insist in unison, that none of them have ever been to prison, that they are just actors assuming the words of other men. It’s a smart opening section, one that instantly frames the viewer’s perspective, encouraging them to look beyond the surface to the grounded reality for the inmates of Wandsworth, a reminder that this is not escapist drama but the recreation of real events in theatrical form. It immediately instils a purposeful reconstruction / documentary-feel to what follows with a clear understanding that the six actors are ciphers for the personalities, complexity, humour and poignancy that prison-life engenders.

Barnes uses a single unnamed character to represent the experiences of so many, a man who leaves behind a girlfriend and two children, as well as a mother he refuses to admit the truth to. “The Jumper Factory” becomes the euphemism for his time in prison, an excuse for not visiting his home for a year, for only making brief calls at set times and, in a particularly effective visiting room scene, the lie he tells his young stepson for not seeing him anymore. Perhaps surprisingly, they all accept it, a hint that maintaining the pretence of family life and the unsullied opinion of his loved-ones is essential to the prisoner’s sense of pride.

With the lead character played simultaneously by all six actors, the show uses individual monologues, dramatised scenes and some choreographed full-group sections to relay different aspects of prison life. There is a universality about these experiences that is aided by different actors playing the Prisoner throughout while also emphasising that the backgrounds, ethnicity and nationality of the men who created the play with Barnes are also quite varied. None of their crimes, including that of our representative protagonist, are ever revealed, a deliberate move to ensure we see only their humanity and not the crime and record of behaviour that anonymously defines their existence in the legal system.

Told in a loose chronological order, The Jumper Factory begins with the Prisoner waiting to be arrested, sitting on a couch in his living room, knowing they are coming for him. Rushand Chambers vividly describes his surroundings, a sense of dread looming while the first panicked thoughts about fleeing breakthrough. Yet, Chambers shows the Prisoner pull himself back, convince himself that a life of on the run would be only too brief and giving himself up is the only way.

We skip forward to the first day, imprisoned with an older man who tries to support him, aware how lucky he is to be there instead of with the various groups and gangs he soon observes on his wing. A panorama of prison life follows; we hear about skinny newcomers bulking-up with steroids and hefty gym sessions after joining some of the more dangerous gangs; we are told about the men who’ve lost all hope of getting-out permanently turn to drugs and violence to release their pent-up aggression; we hear the hissing fury of the landing when everyone’s hour of freedom is rescinded for a misdemeanour including cell fires and ripped-out sinks, and we see in crouching, clutching physical form as the 23-hour a day containment grinds them down.

Most revealing are all the human stories of hope that run through the play, which Barnes uses well to counterbalance the danger and frustrations of incarceration. In a section performed by the collective actors, different coping strategies are revealed which for the men hoping never to return includes anything from reading novels – Pierre Moullier playing the Prisoner is given a James Patterson thriller by his cellmate – to trusting in God to studying A-levels in order to get a job on the outside. Giving structure to prison life, creating routines, having things to look forward to, counting the minutes to the next period of exercise or web development class all help to control the expanse of time in much the same way that men in combat structure their fears hour-by-hour.

Hope also resides in family life and recreated scenes with girlfriend Kai become a core motivation for the ailing Prisoner – a brief rhythmic section chants the days between visits, with 1 instantly resetting to 14 again, an endless cycle of anticipation. It is only inside that he really understands and comes to rely on his feeling for her and their children, the paranoia and fear of abandonment plaguing him in the time between visits, worrying about lives being lived without him, that he will be forgotten. This darkens the mood between them in person too as he looks for signs of commitment and trust.

Barnes balances the changes in tone really effectively, often obscuring the light moments with a sudden twist into the more unpleasant sides of prison life, some of which the Prisoner experiences later in the piece. It is impressive that such a brief play is able to provide such a vast perspective on life in Wandsworth, collating a lot of testimony while maintaining a strong sense of character throughout, a man who wants to be good, to get through it by keeping his head down but struggling to retain his balance against the overwhelming pressure and loneliness he experiences all the time. Sometimes he’s funny and buoyant, looking for the brightness as Tej Obano’s sections do, while often these moments become quite affecting including a tearful speech performed by Moullier and a significant confessional moment from Raphael Akuwudike.

The Jumper Factory is simply presented by director Josh Parr, the actors in a line facing the audience with each stepping forward with their chair to deliver a speech. But there is considerable variation too, Lighting Designer Jess Glaisher’s creates a central square box for several of the monologues, replicated around all of the actors for the group sections (which also include Ayomide Adegun and Jake Mills), each one a small, individual cell restricting their movements. Sound Designer Mike Winship has cut together interview snippets from the real men behind the play, sparingly peppered through the show, as reality continues to lurk just beneath the surface – the recorded sounds of piano and song a memorable interjection from the people really living this life.

With Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train gripping theatregoers in the Young Vic main house with its fascinating discussions about masculinity, faith, justice and the price of redemption, adding an extra 45-minutes to your trip to see this small but hugely powerful one-act show is highly recommended before it embarks on a brief tour later in the month. Created as part of the Young Vic’s ‘Taking Part’ initiative The Jumper Factory has so much to say about the what happens after the crime has been committed and the punishment determined. It’s a heartfelt plea to be remembered and understood by the men counting the seconds until their next milestone, whether that’s their parole date or just dinner time. Barnes, you feel, is not done with this play and beyond its visit to the Bristol Old Vic it certainly deserves a longer stretch – the men of Wandsworth will be pinning their hopes on it too.

The Jumper Factory is at the Young Vic until 9 March and tickets are £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train – Young Vic

Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train - Young Vic

Over the next couple of weeks, the Young Vic has new shows exploring the effects of the criminal justice system and the experience of prison on young men convicted of violent crime. The Jumper Factory has been created with the men of Wandsworth prison, a chance for writer Luke Barnes to dramatise the multifaceted effects of life behind bars and its consequences for individual confidence, rehabilitation and reabsorption into society. But first, there is a revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, a layered story of two violent criminals, the system they hope can save them and the redemptive power that comes from confession.

In a New York prison, Angel Cruz is being held on remand awaiting trial for shooting a vicar who has recruited Angel’s best friend into a cult. There he meets eight-time murderer Lucius when they exercise together in the yard while the unrepentant serial killer talks about finding God. When Angel’s lawyer, Mary Jane Hanrahan, convinces her client to be patient and play the system to their advantage, he starts to dream of freedom, but with Lucius in his head and hateful guard Valdez gunning for them both, Angel’s certainty begins to waver.

Kate Hewitt’s production, played out on Magda Willi’s traverse stage, is on the surface about the legal definitions of guilt and justice as two seemingly quite different men navigate the outcomes of  similar crimes in a one-size-fits-all judicial structure. It asks insightful questions about the comparative severity of offences which in context appear so different – Angel’s an unfortunate accident resulting from concern for his friend, while Lucius’s spree was a merciless act of a clearly disturbed mind. Yet, writer Adly Guirgis has placed them both in the same outdoor cage at exactly the same time in corresponding orange uniforms.

One of the drivers of this production, then, is the question of how different these men really are – the frustrated and withdrawn Angel alongside the confident and vibrant Lucius. And as the story unfolds, Hewitt expertly shifts our perspective on them both as they stand at opposite ends of the courtyard, engaged in the different stages of a tennis match. Willi uses movable plastic doors to demarcate their confinement, showing us the reflected and refracted nature of identity when seen through a transparent surface that at times also acts as a mirror. They are simultaneously themselves and a distorted version of that image, what the world sees is not the face they think they are wearing.

As these men engage in their battle of wills, there is also a more complex discussion of faith and forgiveness. A central pillar of the judiciary system (in theory) is to accept punishment and then be returned to society a reformed man, but Adly Guirgis suggests that this is only possible if the condemned man feels penance for his crimes and accepts that he was wrong. In fact, he goes further to imply that societally-imposed concepts of right and wrong crumble entirely under the idea of a merciful God, and with sufficient faith God will determine who is damned and saved. The born-again Lucius even insists that his conscience is cleared of the multiple homicides he committed because it was God’s plan for those people to become his victims and they did not receive or deserve God’s protection.

While noting the religious naming of the characters, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train becomes an argument between Angel and Lucius about culpability, one that forces Angel to question his own role in the crime he perpetrated. Angel insists that human agency and free will are the cause of his predicament rather than the unseen predestination that Lucius subscribes to. The intensity of their conversation, so brilliantly portrayed in this production, is underscored by religious evocations throughout the story, in Lucius’s chants and verbal exclamations to the sky as he exercises, in Angel’s stumbling attempts to recall the text of the Lord’s Prayer as the play opens, and the shady relationship between the man Angel shot in a church – a Reverend no less – and the “cult” he appeared to be part of, all raising questions about belief, salvation, human agency and the price of clemency.

There are also more grounded themes at play, not least in the structure of prison masculinity and its effects on modern male interpretations of bravado – something which The Jumper Factory is likely to address as well. Across this production’s two-hour run-time, Hewitt and her performers show us the flowering and reduction of the two men at its heart. Angel’s initial weakness blossoms into a much harder form of self-possession as he becomes more used to the forms of prison life and to the growing expectation of his imminent liberation. Where he was largely silent in his first meeting with Lucius, the tables are turned as the latter faces a transfer to Florida and looming death by lethal injection.

Religious debate, then, becomes just one of the battlegrounds on which Angel and Lucius flaunt their masculinity, with their conversation increasingly embittered and vital as they spar and rail at each other’s personalities, crimes and likely future. Both are searching for a space to exist as themselves in a structure that dehumanises and anonymises them, whole complicated beings reduced to reference numbers and the felonies they committed (redolent of policeman Javert eternally referring to Jean Valjean at 24601 in Les Misérables). While physically separated by their individual cages – and this maddening sense of being trapped is evoked well in the claustrophobic set where the walls frequently draw-in on them – the two men try to physically intimidate and threaten each other, locking horns in an attempt to establish precedence, a desire to project a fearlessness they are far from feeling as they get under each other’s skin.

This masculine bristling is given a slightly different form in the behaviour of the prison guards, the first who forms an attachment to Lucius is quickly removed for showing him too much humanity, while his replacement the goading Valdez is a cliché of the evil warden, but in the power games presented in this production, he acts as a reminder that however much they may jostle for position, ultimately they are at the whims of larger forces, an Old Testament God-like presence who makes them bend and submit at will, baiting them with the power to destroy at any time.

No one really cares about these men or what led them to their crimes, and while a line close to the end gives an insight into Lucius’s childhood that makes some sense of him, it is a small moment in an externally controlled structure designed specifically to reduce and restrict them. As well as the guard’s behaviour, Angel’s lawyer Mary Jane Hanrahan uses her client to forward her own career, and as she monologues to the audience directly as well as interacting with Angel, it soon becomes clear that law is a game she needs to win, one in which coaching her client on how to behave and besting the opposition are more important than the man standing trial and the truth of what happened on the night of the crime.

All of this is designed to take the power away from the men in prison, and crucially the audience is not shown key events like Angel’s trial and Lucius’s final moments, but have them relayed to us by characters with a paid role in the criminal justice system – the men themselves are prevented from telling the audience their own story directly, and we must deduce how much of the “official” version of events is correct from the performances. Ukweli Roach as Angel has an early vulnerability that instantly makes his character incredibly sympathetic, he’s overawed by the severity of the situation and the strangely distorting feel of the prison.

Yet as the story unfolds, Roach shows Angel’s slow emergence as at first a brittle confidence begins to take shape which, as he starts to believe the lawyer’s hype about his certain acquittal,  forms into something much less appetising. Roach never allows us to know for certain how guilty Angel really is and as the toll of prison life leads to several increasingly agitated confrontations with Lucius, an innate aggression and potential for violence is revealed. Whether Angel is really the victim of circumstance he claims to be or his own worst enemy is something Roach grapples with extremely effectively in the show’s final scenes, as he begins to doubt his own self-image.

Likewise, Oberon KA Adjepong Lucius, pseudonymously known as the Black Plague, is also forced to reassess his knowledge of himself as Angel challenges his fervent trust in God’s work. Ebullient, energetic and bombastic at the start, Adjepong creates a character who frequently evangelises, utterly confident and unshakeable in his devotion to his faith. Yet there is considerable texture here too and Adjepong uses the strange contradictions of Lucius’s character to draw attention to the psychology of a man who sees himself as a victim of the state’s prosecution process.

Lucius is beloved by his former guard, personable and friendly to Angel, sharing cigarettes with him and trying to ease his early experience of confinement. Yet, simultaneously, Adjepong convinces us that Lucius has coldly and guiltlessly murdered eight people on the spur of the moment. Similarly, he uses his build to intimate, refusing to be cowed by a bullying guard, yet relents when instructed by Valdez and is clearly affected by Angel’s insistence that Lucius’s guaranteed salvation is less than certain, that he rather than God should take responsibility for his crimes. All of these facets are made credible in Adjepong’s compelling performance of a man facing death and ultimately clinging to some kind of certainty to remain afloat.

There is good support from Dervla Kirwan as the hotshot lawyer determined to acquit her client and relishing the courtroom battle ahead. There is an arrogance and a similar kind of delusion in Kirwan’s Mary Jane, a woman who also fails to see herself they way others see her. And Joplin Sibtain as the evil Valdez is equally contained by his role, both relishing the small-scale power he has over the prisoners, taunting them, while, as Lucius points out, equally trapped in the jailhouse and unable to show any kind of weakness that may undermine him.

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is a multi-layered discussion about morality in all its forms and how the artificiality of prison with its removal of humanity and, perhaps quaint, concept of punishment, challenges concepts of responsibility and redemption. With so many themes to explore some get little more than a cursory nod, but in this Young Vic production these debates are enthrallingly staged.

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train is at the Young Vic until 30 March with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Shipwreck – The Almeida

Shipwreck - The Almeida

The first big Trump play has arrived. It has taken a couple of years for writers to get to grips with the political rollercoaster that both the UK and US have endured since those key votes in 2016 separately plunging both nations into the most extraordinary debacles of the modern era. While our own experience of the Brexit chaos is so fantastical you would never believe it in a play, attempts to examine it openly are still so driven by emotion that incendiary debates rage about the role of art in reflecting politics, history and society as it unfolds – as James Graham discovered with the polarised response to his Channel 4 drama Brexit: The Uncivil War.

These issues are, some would argue, are too sensitive, too incomplete to begin to make sense of so instead we subtly nod to them through allusion, inference and by drawing loaded parallels with classic texts. Whether or not you agree with that, Trump’s presidency has left a clear imprint on theatre land even when the show in question is not directly related to him – Jon Culshaw’s impression in a Harold Pinter monologue from the 1980s during the first outing of the Pinter at the Pinter season, or a demigod-ish Caesar at The Bridge Theatre channelling the stylings of the Trumpian electoral campaign. Yet a full-length play inspired entirely by the man himself and the America that made him has taken time to emerge.

First out of the starting gate is Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck, opening this week at the Almeida, a 3.5-hour monster of a show that attempts to unpick the US mindset which led to Trump’s shock election and a particular kind of middle-class inertia and complacency that failed to recognise the signs and act to prevent it. Shipwreck is a huge undertaken, looking at politics, class, wealth and race as well as the small stories of friendship, parenthood and identity. If it sounds ambitious then it is, but the result has a baggy and often incoherent messiness that never quite manages to live up to its own expectations.

The play’s sprawling structure is initially its biggest asset, a collection of friends – presumably old College buddies, though we’re not exactly sure – gathered at the newly acquired farmhouse of couple Richard and Jools. As each pair arrives, the intellectualising begins as they debate core moments of the last two years at the White House, pushing each other on points of disagreement and in several cases wrangling over a determination to have the last word. As these arguments play out, there is something of Annie Baker in Washburn’s approach, big conversations that seem to be about nothing but collectively reveal so much about the American psyche and the complexities of everyday life for working people. The hope of eventual coherence keeps you watching, although a number of viewers made their escape at the interval.

Yet, the show fails to offer any notable or really new insight on the first two years of the most alarming President of modern times. Washburn’s play is a rambling essay of known facts, a polemic that charts some of the key events but fails to deliver a solid argument or even to demonstrate its credentials as a theatrical rather than a scholastic experience. Shipwreck’s very discursiveness should eventually coalesce into big themes and concepts as well as insightful and representative character portraits of the assembled group. This dilapidated farmhouse should be a microcosm of America but struggles to be anything other than a lightweight narrative about some fairly smug affluent people who like to argue.

The big failing of Washburn’s play is that these many hours of talking result in two rather obvious conclusions, first that Trump lies and second that no one who votes for him really cares – well, you don’t need 3½ hours of theatre to tell you that. Dramatically, what plot there is, as the group survive a cold night, miles from anywhere, is driven by the supposedly shocking revelation that one of the characters voted for him, not as an act of sabotage in a safe seat but as a deliberate act in a purple state because they decide that Trump is the President America deserves. There’s something of the confessional in the way this is suddenly revealed but Washburn fails to properly draw these characters and their group identity, so when it comes to it this “major” revelation barely registers – the audience just don’t know or care enough about these people to feel the level of shock they experience.

There is a laboured verbosity in how these characters interact with one another, long, complex sentences, the product of rehearsed debate that never sound remotely spontaneous and undermines the reality of the characters. And while there’s something Sorkin-esque about this approach, the play lacks the intellectual clout that makes his work so compelling, so with each scene built around a different point of contention it all becomes a bit a Dawson’s Creek meets The West Wing.

In lieu of real characters, there is instead an excellent group of actors that do everything they can to keep the show alive despite the rather thin material they have to work with – like assembling The Avengers only to tackle a parking dispute – they absolutely carry the show. As the play opens, the scene is set by Raquel Cassidy’s Jools welcoming her tired friends to the inexplicably understocked and ramshackle farmhouse that she and husband Richard (Risteárd Cooper) are renovating. There’s something frail and homely in Cassidy’s performance, a woman who is hiding from the world, offering to bake cookies and lighting candles. Later, rather out of the blue, she argues frantically with the person who voted for Trump, but the play never shows us what her former, possibly waspish, life was and why this pivotal meeting of such different friends is really taking place so far from New York.

Adam James is never less than compelling, and in Shipwreck he brings a sardonic texture to lawyer Andrew who retains his faith in cool logic however impassioned his friends become. But more than the others, James shows us something deeper beneath the surface, a hint of self-knowledge about the protection his privileged lifestyle affords with partner Yusuf as part of the New York elite, troubled by the direction of his country but rational in the weighing-up of facts and emotions. Khalid Abdalla’s Yusuf does well with some big confessional speeches that speak to the association between liberal privilege and Trumpian wealth protection polices, if only his character was anchored enough in the show to make these more meaningful.

The rest of their friendship group is made-up of stereotypes, the poor hippy couple Jim and Teresa implausibly arriving almost immediately from the birth of their first grandchild and activist Allie whose recitation of Trump facts and realisation of her own failure to act initiates most of the debate. How these people have remained friends given their vastly different social spheres is problematic and unlikely, but the performances from Elliot Cowan, Tara Fitzgerald and Justine Mitchell make them all potentially interesting perspectives on the effects of Trump if only the play could have grounded their lives more convincingly.

Out on his own, monologues from rising star Fisayo Akinade tell a not-quite complementary story of Mark’s childhood, adopted as a boy by white parents and raised in the same farmhouse the liberal New Yorkers now occupy. The experience of inter-racial families, how Mark came to view his own skin colour and his later exploration of competing ideas of black heritage are interesting discussion points which Akinade delivers well. These scenes are accompanied by Cooper and Fitzgerald as Mark’s parents Lawrence and Laurie, who talk about the immigration issues that had long led to Trump’s election, but the three stories never fuse effectively enough to be a truly insightful or meaningful assessment of America’s fate.

Rupert Goold unites the domestic and the political by staging the whole thing on a big round Arthurian table, at which both the actors and audience members sit. For much of the play, the table top becomes the performance space bringing the action more into the laps of the viewer than the tiny Almeida stage normally allows. This idea was used very effectively in a version of King Lear at the Union Theatre some years ago where the battlefield and the political arena became the same space, and for Shipwreck it is an equally useful metaphor for the ways in which societal power intrinsically affects the everyday.

It is a shame that some of the other aspects are less subtle including two rather ghastly fantasy sequences, played like cartoons in which Donald Trump (Cowan) confronts first George Bush (Akinade) and then James Comey (Abdalla). These horrible missteps again show us things we already know, that Trump reimagines his own history to paint himself as the knowledgeable hero and that he sees his unlimited power in terms of who is for and against him – also reiterated in several allusions to God and religious painting that dominate the projected backdrop. In an otherwise straight production that is entirely based on small-scale discussion, these overlong parodies are vastly misjudged. Not seeing Trump at all would have made his presence stronger and more dangerous.

It is a huge shame with so many possibilities in the scenario and script that the first specific Trump play should be such a disappointment, and, despite their excellence with the classics, its hard to remember the last time new writing at the Almeida genuinely astounded (possibly as long ago as Ink). It suffers too from coming so soon after Sweat at the Donmar that has recently earned a deserved West End transfer, Lynn Nottage’s play about disillusion and disenfranchisement in working-class America that manages to be everything Washburn’s play cannot. Shipwreck has its moments and the cast are uniformly excellent, but without strong character investment it dwindles to little more than a few well-hashed arguments we’ve all heard before.

Shipwreck is at The Almeida until 30 March with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


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