Review: BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY, Hampstead Theatre

Danny Sapani stars in Stephen Adly Guirgis' award-winning play.

By: May. 14, 2024
Review: BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY, Hampstead Theatre
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Review: BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY, Hampstead Theatre Walter Washington is stuck. Stuck in his recently deceased wife’s wheelchair. Stuck in what writer Stephen Adly Guirgis grandly describes as “a rent-controlled palace ruled by a grieving despot king” that he can ill afford. Stuck waiting for City Hall to pay him what he considers his due after a thirty year-long cop career ended in a shooting incident. Stuck living with a dog, two unwanted housemates and boxes of stolen goods brought home by his ex-con son Junior (Martins Imhangbe). And stuck dealing with a debilitating drink problem, a dark depression and thoughts of a life he would have preferred to live. That’s a whole lot of stuck.

His only impetus to leave his past behind comes from his ex-police partner Audrey (Judith Roddy) and her fiance Dave (Daniel Lapaine) who try to pressure him into accepting a deal and moving on with his life. They - along with everyone else in Walter’s life - have their own motives, their versions of the truth and very specific ideas on how to resolve their less-than-ideal situations to their own benefit.

Review: BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY, Hampstead Theatre
Photo credit: Johan Persson

As played by a supremely charismatic Danny Sapani, there’s something of King Lear (a role the actor played at the Donmar last year) in the way Walter’s myopic view of his own deep faults, his roiling obsession with how his career ended and the payback he feels owed to him not just by his ex-employers but the public he served as a patrolman and soldier. He rattles his sabre at all and sundry apart from the unseen dog, his widower grief exposed in every verbal barb and thrust. A holy “miracle” from a church lady (a sassy Ayesha Antoine) relieves of his mental and physical impotence and offers him the opportunity to finally have the life he has ached for.

Guirgis’ Between Riverside And Crazy debuted a decade ago off-Broadway to a hail of awards including the following year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. We are back in his favoured stomping ground of Manhattan where his Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train and Halfway Bitches Go Straight To Heaven are set and Guirgis’ frenetic dialogue is most at home.

This study of a man trapped by his own inertia is, paradoxically, quite a rowdy ride with almost everything that comes out of Walter’s mouth spattered with swearing of the “f”, “s” and “m-f” variety. The racial themes and his ear for street-level language recall August Wilson at his peak while there is more than a pinch of Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman in Walter’s existential despair. 

Guirgis ably sets the scene from the off. We are presented by Walter having his breakfast out of a bottle accompanied by his two housemates, Lulu (Junior’s dimwitted girlfriend, played by Tiffany Gray) and Oswaldo (Sebastian Orozco), Junior’s friend who is sobering up from a life of drugs. The latter two both call Walter “dad” while, for his own part, the old man struggles to connect with his only offspring until fate intervenes. 

Review: BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY, Hampstead Theatre
Photo credit: Johan Persson

As well as broader asides at deep societal ills like racial inequality, not least the treatment of white-on-black violence, Guirgis mercilessly takes aim at the fake informality and friendliness espoused by Lulu, Oswaldo, Audrey and Dave. They all want something from the patriarch and between them use every technique in the book to emotionally manipulate him, something that speaks to anyone who wades daily through the pat phrases and phoney smiles that pass for customer service these days.

While Sapani is incredibly watchable, Michael Longhurst’s direction feels a bit too laid back for such a dynamic script and some scenes feel under-rehearsed; what should rattle and roll sometimes shakes and shudders. Max Jones’ intelligent set specked with clues and details leans heavily on Guirgis’ instructions and makes smart use of Hampstead’s large stage. As was the case across the pond, this intelligent, intimate and ultimately optimistic study is primed for a transfer to a more central London venue.

Between Riverside and Crazy continues at Hampstead Theatre until 15 June.

Photo Credits: Johan Persson


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