top of page

Review: Between Riverside and Crazy (Hampstead Theatre)

Review by Sam Waite




As we get older, more set in our ways, it can become difficult to let things go and move on from past grievances – this is particularly true when little else in life seems to have gone the way we wanted, and that one victory begins to feel like a lifetime’s vindication. At least, this is my understanding of Walter Washington, the central figure of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Between Riverside and Crazy, the Pulitzer-wining play making its UK debut at the Hampstead Theatre.

Walter is growing old in the New York City apartment he shared with his late wife, who he nursed in her final years after their finances had dwindled paying for his own care after a fellow police officer mistakenly opened fire on him. The rent-controlled apartment being much too large and Walter being lonelier than he’d ever let on, Walter Jr. is also staying there, along with his girlfriend Lulu, and friend Oswaldo, a recovering addict. Pressure begins to mount against Walter when his former partner and her new fiancé, both rising through the NYPD ranks, try to persuade him to drop his near-decade long civil suit over the shooting – first trying to convince him it’s pointless to go on any longer, and then threatening him with the knowledge of Junior and Oswaldo’s less-than-legal working histories.


Guirgis’ history of success and acclaim is easy to understand, his dialogue flowing naturally and his main character feeling fully formed without the need for endless info-dumping. For me, however, his blend of slice-of-life and driven narrative left me wanting more of each, with the everyday elements too easily forgotten when drama rose, but the characters creating the drama being barely-present and vanishing for much of the performance. Likewise, a seventh character enters for the beginning of act two, only to go unseen for the majority of the act – there are perhaps metaphors for how fleeting appearances can have deeper impacts, but I found it hard to be invested in the impact of characters who we had barely been introduced to. The mainstays were far more compelling, consistently-written characters whose motivations were never in question, and whose behaviour felt wholly natural to who they are.

Michael Longhurst’s direction is natural and graceful, as you would expect from a man of his experience, including his 5 years as Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse. Conversations never feel staged under Longhurst’s direction, and nor does the first act’s largely slice-of-life storytelling feel dragging or unwelcome. While his blocking and choices of movement carry authenticity, the performances are a mixed bag with only some of the cast of seven making a real, emotional impression. Judith Roddy and Daniel Lapaine aren’t poor by any means, but their too-brief appearances as Walter’s allies-turned-antagonists fail to mine any real depth from the roles.


Having played a charming young ne’er-do-well so well in the Donmar’s production of Clyde’s, Sebastian Orozco seemed at times to be out of his depth in Riverside, his accent and his boyish charm both coming across as inauthentic, hitting the beats of the script without forming much connection. Ayesha Antoine’s act two appearance is strong, but her time is so fleeting that her comedic gifts and ability to move with just a few words almost go unnoticed, while the more prominent Tiffany Gray imbues Lulu with this same sense of humour and compassion, holding her own when opposite leading man Danny Sapani, and threatening to steal scenes out from under the rest of the cast with her down-on-her-luck charms and deliberately-grating inflections.

Sapani, an utter triumph in the Almeida’s King Lear, is no less impressive here as another aging father struggling to adapt to a world changing more quickly than he can accept. Capable of grand outbursts and subtle, nuanced flairs of emotion, Sapani is a force to be reckoned with even in his more muted scenes, with Gray and Antoine the only ones who can stand toe-to-toe with him. Opposite him, Martins Imhangbe is by no means a bad actor, but his work seems flat and unaffected when held up against such an electrifying performer.


Max Jones’ design for the “palatial” apartment is attractive at first glance, allowing us to slowly recognise the clutter of a long life with no intentions of moving for ourselves. While the concept, a moveable bedroom to allow scenes both there and in a hospital bed to be moved – literally – to the forefront, is solid, the execution can be awkward. As the room comes forward or moves to the back of the stage, the effect is the apartment, of which we primarily see the kitchen, seeming smaller than it is repeatedly described as being – everything feels more enclosed, like the single step taken to enter the bedroom is a literal representation of the space.


While a hinged part of one bedroom wall makes an effective door, and Longhurst’s having Gray and Imhangbe behind it creates the idea of real separation and entrapment for a pivotal scene, this scene also contains Longhurst’s one misstep in blocking the production. Where the show’s Broadway run had a revolving set which allowed rooms to be walked through in real-time, an attempt to replicate this hear has an actor walking in a circle around the exterior of the bedroom, creating a confusing disconnect as her continues to speak to the characters inside.


There is genuinely rich, affecting writing in Between Riverside and Crazy, and Sapani in particular is magnetic enough to justify any price for admission. Perhaps the themes of the piece didn’t resonate with me, but the strength of the writing and bulk of the direction is undeniable, and important subjects from class subjugation, racial profiling, and the truth that those institutions meant to provide justice often don’t, are raised without an air of preachiness. In today’s ever-shifting political climate, that is, above all else, to be admired.


Between Riverside and Crazy plays at Hampstead Theatre until June 15th



Photos by Johan Persson




bottom of page