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Review: Jitney (The Old Vic)

Updated: Jun 17, 2022

Following a critically acclaimed run at Leeds Playhouse last year, a revival of Jitney is back in London for a limited season at the Old Vic. Part of August Wilsons 'Century Cycle' (also known as the 'Pittsburgh Cycle') which is a series of 10 plays written through Augusts life, each being set in a different decade. Jitney was the first to be written in 1979 (though it is the 8th in the series) and received its premiere in London in 2001.



If, like me, you were previously unfamiliar with the word Jitney, it refers to unofficial, unlicensed taxi cabs which takes people where licenced taxi cabs won't. Jitney is set in a cab station in Pitttsburgh in 1977 with all the action taking place in one setting as the drivers and their various acquaintances come and go, referencing events in their lives outside of the office though this all goes unseen to the audience.


With truly brilliant direction from Tinuke Craig, Jitney boasts impressive staging from Alex Lowde, giving the impression a building has been sliced open for us to secretly observe. Surrounded by gorgeous use of video projection designed by Ravi Deepres, the static nature of the stage itself is beautifully contradicted with a seemingly moving exterior. Clever use of sound from Max Perryment, including an inspired touch where dialogue is repeated during a scene change, and fantastic lighting with Elliot Griggs ensures every element of this production is of the highest possible quality.



As strong as all the elements are, the real strength in Jitney is the stunning writing. Naturalistic dialogue between the various characters are played out, with the tone changing at the click of a fingers from seemingly offbeat, humorous moments to far more serious and occasionally uncomfortable moments. This can lead to a fairly uneasy watch, as the action unfolds - particularly in the closing section of act one, which features the most intense two-hander I have personally seen in any play. Difficult to watch but utterly captivating, it really was a testament to what exemplary writing can achieve when played out appropriately. Constantly shifting in tone throughout both acts, your laughter may be cut short when the rug is pulled out from under you, with a similar turn in the shows climax providing a real gut-punch.


Speaking of the performances, great writing needs a great cast, and Jitney has that in spades. Wil Johnson leads as Becker, captaining not only the office but all the other characters as he interacts with them in a true commanding performance. Sule Rimi is gripping to watch as the volatile Turnbo while the tension with Youngblood, brilliantly played by Solomon Israel, leads to some of the most memorable moments of the piece. Tony Marshall is a standout as Fielding - a character largely used for comic effect, but with a sadness that ultimately has you falling in love with his character.



There has been no shortage of great plays to enjoy this year, but Jitney is up there with the best of them. It may have been written more than 40 years ago but it still feels completely fresh and every bit as gripping now, not losing any impact whatsoever. A true masterclass in not only exceptional writing but how to adapt that writing flawlessly to the stage. Like watching pure theatre magic in front of your eyes, Jitney is a real example of how to tell stories effectively and phenomenally. An absolute masterpiece.


★★★★★


Jitney, an Old Vic, Headlong and Leeds Playhouse co-production is at the Old Vic from 9 June – 9 July before touring.. Tickets for all dates run from https://headlong.co.uk/productions/jitney/venues/


Photos by Manuel Harlan

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