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It’s hard to believe that it’s 17 years since this had its UK premiere at the Donmar. In this terrific production it feels freshly minted, and I can’t help wondering why its taken so long to be revived. We’ve had three other plays by Stephen Adly Guirgis since, most notably 2015’s The Motherf***er With The Hat. which gave the NT’s marketing department an interesting challenge, so its good to look at the first once again.

Set in a New York prison, we meet Lucius, a serial killer waiting for extradition to Florida, where his killing spree started and where the death penalty exists. He has a benevolent guard Charlie in his solitary 23-hour lock up wing. Much younger Angel is awaiting trial for a shooting. He’s moved to the same wing for his own protection after an assault. Charlie leaves and the far from benevolent Valdez is sent to persecute them. The only other character is Angel’s lawyer Mary Jane who visits intermittently to discuss defence strategy and tactics.

The discussions between Lucius and Angel are the heart of the piece as we debate responsibility & accountability and redemption. We learn about the prisoners’ motivations and personal histories in what becomes a psychological sparring match. How much do the actions of the victims justify the crime? How much does a tragic past excuse a crime? It’s played out on a traverse stage with moving glass walls / doors with blinding lighting and deafening drums between scenes to keep up the tension. It shocks, though there are flashes of humour that relieve the tension. and your brain almost hurts as you decide what you think about these people and their actions. I found it riveting.

Oberon K A Adjepong (a very welcome visitor from the US) as Lucius and Ukweli Roach as Angel are mesmerising to watch, with great physicality, spitting out dialogue at frenetic speed. Dervla Kirwan is excellent as the Irish American lawyer Mary Jane who we learn a surprising amount about. Joplin Sibtain is terrific as their nemesis Valdez, prodding and provoking them for fun. Matthew Douglas’ Charlie is such a contrast, and comes back to surprise us towards the end.

Director Kate Hewitt and designed Magda Willi have done an excellent job creating the tension which the play needs. Yet more thrilling stuff at the Young Vic.

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