Between Riverside and Crazy – Hampstead Theatre | Review

The blurb on the playscript of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ new play Between Riverside and Crazy describes it as ‘Rabelaisian’, a very suitable adjective as it contains irreverent humour, larger-than-life characters and a zest for life. Although this is its first British production, it first saw the light of day off-Broadway in 2014, winning various prizes.

Tiffany Gray and Martins Imhangbe in Between Riverside and Crazy. Credit Johan Persson.
Tiffany Gray and Martins Imhangbe in Between Riverside and Crazy. Credit Johan Persson.

The plot concerns ‘Pops’ Washington (Danny Sapani), a retired New York cop, whose wife died a few months previously and whose son, Junior (Martins Imhangbe) has just been released from prison. They live in a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive, New York City where Guirgis himself lives. Junior’s girlfriend Lulu (Tiffany Gray) and Oswaldo (Sebastian Orozco), a recovering addict, also spend time at the apartment. Pops has long been pursuing a discrimination suit against the Police Department because he was accidentally shot by another officer.

The play is a captivating series of character studies, the most prominent of which is Pops himself, dominating virtually every scene and giving the play momentum. Sapani is wonderful in this role from the moment we see him sitting and eating breakfast in a wheelchair. He commands the stage with his physical presence: his resonant voice and clear diction effortlessly filling the theatre. He blusters and rages, at one moment being very funny, at others very poignant.

We first see Junior carrying a heavy box into the apartment and instinctively know that what it contains is not legal! Imhhangbe looks suitably shady and it is a shame that in his conversations with Pops, his enunciation is not clearer. Gray as his girlfriend has taken on board that she is, to say the least, not very intelligent, and portrays this realistically without ever becoming a caricature.

Detective Audrey O’Connor, Pops’ old partner in NYPD, is very convincingly acted by Judith Roddy. It is her task to try to persuade him to accept the police department’s offer, and she points out that he is in danger of being evicted owing to the presence of both minor criminals and ‘dodgy’ goods in the apartment. If the landlord were to succeed in getting him out, the property could be rented out at ten times the price! She is aided and abetted by Lieutenant Dave Caro, who wants to marry her. In the capable hands of Daniel Lapaine, he is your typical US TV series cop, but again, Lapaine makes him a very believable person, and seems willing to do anything to help! As a non-member of the family, he seems to be the only one who really cares about Pops!

Ayesha Antoine as Church Lady is perhaps the strangest of Guirgis’ characters – almost surreal – and Sebastian Grozco makes the most of the role of drug addict Oswaldo, even if his voice again lacks projection and clarity of diction.

The original productions benefitted from a slowly revolving stage that showed every room in the apartment, creating an over-stuffed feeling:  an Upper West Side apartment where everyone lives on top of each other, continuously occupied for several decades. Unfortunately, Hampstead designer Max Jones’ rather open yet confused set seems too large and not claustrophobic enough. Effective lighting is by Anna Watson and Sound Design by Richard Hamilton.

Michael Longhurst has directed the ensemble with a true sense of understanding of how the playwright moves in a moment from high comedy to tragedy, then back again, as well as allowing, as is Guirgis’ intention, for Pops to take centre stage throughout, even when he is not physically present.

A compelling play, right off the New York City streets, and one that I can warmly recommend.

4 stars
Review by John Groves

Between Riverside and Crazy

Cast: Ayesha Antoine, Tiffany Gray, Martins Imhangbe, Daniel Lapaine, Sebastian Orozco, Judith Roddy and Danny Sapani

Writer Stephen Adly Guirgis
Director Michael Longhurst
Designer Max Jones
Lighting Designer Anna Watson
Sound Designer and Composer Richard Hammarton
Casting Director Lotte Hines

Friday 3 May to Saturday 15 June 2024
hampsteadtheatre.com

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