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Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train review: A window into the captivating tensions of a US jailhouse

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s firecracker examination of a New York prison contains one of my favourite lines in all modern drama: “Be blazin’ or be freezin’ — but don’t you ever be cool.” True to its word, this pumping, pounding, pulsing play alternately blazes and freezes its way through the stories of two men locked up in the infamous Rikers Island.

The first thing that strikes us about this powerful production from fast-rising director Kate Hewitt is the traverse stage that bisects the auditorium. Across this, in Magda Willi’s clever design, move metal-framed screens filled with glass, shifting position to suggest whichever space the prisoners find themselves enclosed in. The glass allows simultaneous but disconcerting feelings of freedom and captivity, intimacy and perpetual estrangement.

Angel Cruz (Ukweli Roach) is the new guy on the cell block, having shot a cult leader who brainwashed his friend. Lucius Jenkins (Oberon KA Adjepong), on the other hand, is the “superstar” prisoner, a serial killer who has now found God and expounds his faith with aggressive commitment.

The two men start to talk and the rising heat of their conversations, liberally scattered with Adly Guirgis’s favourite words, “s***” and “motherf***er”, leads to simmering discussions on crime and punishment, God and morality. What happens, asks the play, when good reasons inspire a bad deed? Or when a bad man might, just possibly, have gone good?

Around Lucius and Angel, like moths to the flame, fly Mary Jane Hanrahan (Dervla Kirwan), a lawyer who turns Angel’s case into a personal crusade, and sadistic guard Valdez (Joplin Sibtain). Every performance blazes and freezes in all the right places; Adjepong affords the staring-eyed Lucius visceral presence and menace as he does frenzied press-ups in the name of the Lord.

Roach traces a careful path from innocence to experience, while Kirwan captures with care the sound instincts and grandstanding tendencies of an overworked legal professional.

Hewitt’s production imparts a febrile sense of injustice and imbalance; a cacophony of percussion erupts between scenes to suggest the perpetual clamour of this unquiet place.

Despite the calm minimalism of the glass, there’s palpable tension, lying coiled like a snake, ever ready to hiss and spit out its energy, passion and violence.

Until March 30 (020 7922 2922, youngvic.org)