Lloyd Evans

Rooting for crime

Plus: Tartuffe is a randy Dr Who at the Arcola and a derelict hippy at the Lyttelton

Rooting for crime
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Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train by Stephen Adly Guirgis deserves its classic status. This wordy and highly cerebral play pulls off an extraordinary feat by leading the spectator inside the mind of a psychopath. The setting is Rikers Island, where an old lag, Lucius, befriends a younger detainee, Angel, who hopes to be acquitted of killing a pastor whom he shot in the buttocks. (The bullet-in-the-bottom detail is typical of Adly Guirgis’s macabre frivolity.)

Lucius is a chain-smoking fitness freak who keeps himself in trim by jogging on the spot and performing bursts of press-ups in his cell. We first meet him as the victim of petty bullying by a sardonic prison guard and we aren’t told why he’s in custody. This clever piece of dramatic timing ensures that we’re rooting for him from the start and we’re startled to learn that he’s a murderer with eight kills to his name. His first victim, he tells us, was a pizza delivery boy whose corpse he flung in a dumpster. He expected to be charged and jailed for life. ‘But nothing happened.’ No arrest, no investigation. He even called the pizza firm to ask for his ‘missing’ order to be replaced. And it was.

To him the next step was logical, to kill again. And because we’re in sympathy with his outlook, we’re persuaded that his motives are, in part, reasonable. It’s a weird and disturbing experience to feel that one’s moral coordinates are being broken apart and reshaped in favour of random homicide. That’s the magic of the script.

Kate Hewitt’s production places the actors on a gleaming grey catwalk that stretches the length of the auditorium. Two glass partitions, gliding back and forth by remote control, indicate the cell walls. This arrangement is chic, spare and ingenious, but it’s also impractical because the clockwork slitherings of the glass walls deflect attention from the play’s abstract and ethereal core. I doubt if this will prevent a minor avalanche of awards. Dervla Kirwan is brilliant as the brash, touchy Irish-American lawyer trying to save Angel from a life sentence. Joplin Sibtain gives a convincing portrait of self-righteous nit-pickery as the obnoxious guard, Valdez. The show’s star, Oberon K. A. Adjepong (Lucius), should clear some space on his mantelpiece. Statuettes are coming.

Tartuffe has a storyline that appeals to every age. A rich buffoon surrenders his fortune to a philandering conman who claims religious inspiration. It would work well as a parable for the West’s submission to the green lobby’s scare tactics but this adaptation by John Donnelly sets the tale in a blinged-up mansion in north London. Orgon is a yuppie squillionaire whose vast drawing-room is adorned with items that are slightly, and very deliberately, overdone. There’s a gold replica of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ noosed in a pink bolero, and a huge mobile lamp that swivels inquisitively on its axis like a cartoon detective.

The details of Robert Jones’s set are a treat for the eyes. But turning Orgon into a self-made businessman creates confusion. We have to believe that he’s bright enough to acquire a fortune and stupid enough to lose it to a cheesy con-artist. It’s never clear why Orgon becomes emotionally dependent on his swindler. Nor is it apparent what inflection of spirituality the play sets out to pillory. Tartuffe (Denis O’Hare) is a derelict hippy with wrinkly eyes and a Deep Purple hairdo but he represents no particular faith other than a bland Tibetanism.

In the show’s first half, the younger cast members scream their lines too loud, perhaps hoping that high volume will generate high comedy. Some in the audience laughed but I was tempted to plug my ears as they flung their shrieks at the Lyttelton’s back wall. The second half, dominated by Orgon’s classy wife, Elmire (Olivia Williams), is more grounded in emotional truth. The comedy works better but the play never solves the problem of its own irrelevance.

Patrick Marmion’s version at the Arcola, Keith?, recasts Tartuffe as a hedonistic deity who travels across the space-time continuum like a randy Dr Who. At first he’s Dionysus. Then he becomes Keith from Bristol (‘All right, my lovers?’), who morphs into a South African gun-runner posing as a Buddhist monk to evade capture by Interpol.

This approach has several advantages. The distorted caricatures are funny and the script makes contact with real life. Orgon becomes Morgan, an impotent clot whose irascible wife, Veena, teaches Comparative Misanthropy at LSE. Keith himself is played by the athletic and half-naked Joseph Millson who looks every inch a sex god. The women fancy him and Morgan stands in awe of his erotic prowess.

Marmion’s quickfire dialogue is delivered with panache by a great cast that includes the icily punctilious Sara Powell (Veena) and the hilarious Natalie Klamar as Roxy. It’s a while since I’ve seen a comedian of Klamar’s natural talent.