Tag Archives: Prison drama

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

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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


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