Between Riverside and Crazy – Hampstead Theatre, London

Reviewer: Stephen Bates

Writer: Stephen Adly Guirgis

Director: Michael Longhurst

Some people seem to enjoy jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. Take Danny Sapani for example. Having recently completed a run as King Lear at the Almeida Theatre, the actor now makes the short trip across North London to play an old man whose life is descending into chaos in Between Riverside and Crazy, Stephen Adult Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama.

There is something vaguely Shakespearean in how the writer integrates tragedy with comedy and uses symbolic imagery to highlight profound themes. Known as “Pops”, Walter (Sapani) retired from the New York Police Department (NYPD) eight years earlier after being shot by a rookie cop. He lives in a large, rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan’s fashionable Riverside Drive, but his home has become a refuge for petty criminals and drug users and his landlord wants him out.

Walter’s apartment, as seen in Max Jones’ set design, is spacious, but shambolic and unwelcoming. A tall Christmas tree that had long ago lost its needles stands in one corner, still lit up. Walter’s wife had died just before Christmas and it is as if time had stood still for him at that moment. Sapani’s towering performance takes ownership of the stage and of the play. His Walter is stubborn, embittered and bombastic. Being black, the character views every situation through the prism of racism and his generosity of spirit sees him supporting causes that are not always worthy.

Sapani’s Walter dwarfs other characters in director Michael Longhurst’s well-crafted and well-acted production. Martins Imhangbe is Junior, Walter’s well-meaning son, who may (or may not) have made his girlfriend Lulu (Tiffany Gray) pregnant. Sebastian Orozco is a seedy Oswaldo, a desperate drug addict who scrounges off Walter’s charity, and Ayesha Antoine is an eccentric “Church Lady” who advocates strange treatments for his ailments.

In two pivotal scenes, two police officers, Dave (Daniel Lapaine) and Audrey (Judith Roddy), who are engaged to marry each other, appear to attempt to persuade Walter to settle claims against the NYPD. Interestingly, they are the play’s only white characters and the adversarial roles that they assume strengthens the racism subtext of a drama that is not primarily built on that theme.

There are times when it feels that the play is too American, specifically too New York, to resonate fully with United Kingdom audiences. Undoubtedly, some of the drama’s relevance has become lost in the Atlantic crossing. That said, its portrait of a man who is suffering the ravages of ageing and watching his domain crumbling is truly memorable.

Runs until 15 June 2024

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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