Michael Nower is sceptical of ‘Northern’ theatre company Elysium’s play choice for its second production.
With Elysium Theatre Company’s stated aim of ‘bringing the best of world theatre to the North’, I had high hopes when I entered the Assembly Rooms for their production of Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train. These hopes were met in some respects, with some excellent performances among the cast. However, in other respects, the production was let down, most notably, for me, by the choice of the play itself.
Set in a prison in New York City, the production tells the story of two criminals: Angel Cruz (Danny Solomon), a Puerto Rican accused of felony murder and Lucius Jenkins (Faz Singhateh), a born again evangelical Christian who is also a self-confessed serial killer with eight murders to his name. Both of these prisoners are locked away alone in solitary confinement, apart from one hour a day when they are brought to adjacent exercise yards, under the watchful eyes of prison guard Valdez (Alastair Gillies). The cast was completed by Angel’s lawyer Mary Jane Hanrahan (Alice Bryony Frankham) and another prison guard Charlie D’Amico (Garth Williams). For me some of the best elements in the production lay in the interaction between the two prisoners, with a particularly compelling performance coming from Singhateh. The undercurrent of menace in his performance, bubbling over occasionally into rage, beneath the usual veneer of the characters’ evangelicalism, made his performance particularly enjoyable to watch. Another enjoyable element in his performance was his ability to react to what was going on around him, an element that I felt was missing in some of the other performances, such as those of Gillies and, in some of his earlier scenes with his lawyer, Solomon. This missing reaction was something that I feel could have been addressed by an additional week or two of rehearsals, which would also have allowed the cast to slow down somewhat in their deliveries, preventing the occasional line stumble.
The performance by Frankham was another highlight for me; the development of the character though her interactions with Angel and her later monologues was subtle, yet well conveyed. The performance by Williams was understated but effective and led to one of the most compelling scenes, where D’Amico is describing Lucius’ execution. The scene highlighted one of the best elements of the production – the skill with which the cast and director Jake Murray handled the long monologues in the script. Monologues can slow a production down or lead to a dip in energy as the cast are not able to play off the reactions of one another, but for me the opposite was true in this production – each monologue brought a noticeable increase in energy.
The production elements of the show were generally well done; the set was simplistic but effective, with two slightly raised areas denoting the yards, and a large US flag adorning the rear of the stage. One minor criticism was the inconsistency with which the boundaries of the yard were treated. The stage was set out to imply that these areas were contained behind bars, yet at various points throughout the production the cast behaved as though there were no barriers. Although this is a minor point, it is something to bear in mind when using a minimalistic set, as it can break the suspension of disbelief in the audience. The lighting was also well done, with clear demarcation between the different settings of the production. However, I felt that the lighting did experience the usual Assembly Rooms issue of insufficient face light, which was a particular shame given the expressive performances given by Solomon and Singhateh in their yard scenes.
For me, the biggest disappointment of the production was the choice of play itself. Whilst it is undoubtedly a well-written play, which would be superb in the right location, I wondered how relevant the themes and situations are to a UK audience. Although some themes, such as the discussions of morality, and the culpability of actions, are universal, the settings within which these themes are examined felt disconnected from the UK. In particular, the evangelical nature of Lucius Jenkins, whilst an effective medium for the discussions, did not feel relevant in a UK context. There is a substantial amount of high quality theatre which examines similar themes; therefore I felt that a play set in the UK, ideally the North of England, might have been better production to bring to Durham. This is something that I would personally consider if I were aiming to bring world theatre into the North. This would also solve the problem of the actors’ accents, which whilst extremely well done, occasionally faltered, particularly when the cast were stumbling over their lines, and did also sometimes fall into heightened stereotypes.
Overall, it was an enjoyable production, and I look forward to seeing more from Elysium Theatre Company in Durham in the future. Nonetheless, I hope that, going forwards, more consideration is given towards the choice of show, to showcase some of the world class theatre that is more relevant and relatable for a UK audience.
Elysium Theatre Company are The Assembly Rooms Theatre’s resident company. Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train will be playing in HOME in Manchester, 16th-19 May.