Between Riverside and Crazy review – Hampstead Theatre, London ★★★☆☆

Photo: Johan Persson

Review by Natalie Evans

To open the 2024 summer season at the Hampstead, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Between Riverside and Crazy takes to the main stage. Set in a rent controlled apartment on the highly coveted Riverside Drive, our protagonist Walter “Pops” Washington plays patriarch to not only his own son, but also a few of Junior’s motley crew. The main plot point of the piece centers around Walter’s ongoing legal battle with his ex employers at the NYPD following his being shot while off duty by a young white officer, but also touches heavily on the difficult realities of both addiction and the social class dynamics in New York City.

What absolutely made this production was the performances. Every single one was a standout. Tiffany Gray as Junior’s girlfriend LuLu in her onstage debut is simply excellent, and by far the most likable character on stage, bringing an endearing charm to what could have easily been a very two dimensional character. Sebastian Orozco as Oswaldo impresses with his beautifully sincere depiction of an addict in the midst of a relapse. Daniel Lapaine as Dave is almost concerningly good at bringing to life an incredibly recognisable selfish and self-righteous bully, and Judith Roddy as Audrey was startlingly capable of eliciting sympathy while being so controversial.

Ayesha Antoine as the Church Lady was a joy to witness when we were given the opportunity, truly stealing the scenes she was in with her comedic nuance. Martins Imhangbe befits the role of Junior perfectly with an air of bravado that is undercut by a youthful and desperate desire to make his father really see him. Then of course there is Danny Sapani as Walter Washington. He consistently exudes charisma even when the character appears to be losing control as Sapani expertly balances the complexities of the role. He is vulnerable yet emotionally unavailable, crude yet comforting, and hilarious yet utterly heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, I didn’t feel as though the text these actors were given to work with quite lived up to this standard. Much like Adly Guirgis’s Last Days of Judas Iscariot, this piece calls out the hypocrisy hidden in the underbelly of religion as one of many subplots. However, unlike his aforementioned earlier work, that is not the primary theme of this show, and so it is somewhat haphazardly thrown in for good measure along with a hearty dose of institutionalized racism and working class struggles, making for a rather messy attempt at addressing too many socio-political topics.

Photo: Johan Persson

Now, the array of issues raised were admittedly intersectional in terms of identity, but some of the subtextual messages fell flat as a result of being overshadowed by those that were louder and more overt. For example, none of the individual relationships really had enough time amongst everything else going on to be fully developed. My main gripe with the text however was the frequent and flippant use of the R word. I am very aware of Adly Guirgis’s affinity for profanity, especially to establish realistic views of his deliberately morally grey characters, but this particular language was entirely irrelevant and unnecessary.

The set equally appeared confused, as though, like the script, there were too many concepts to incorporate. Additionally, the door of the structure imprisoning the bedroom was distractingly flimsy. Although, it did make for a great visual when Junior and LuLu stood behind it whilst douchey Dave threatened to have them both incarcerated. I also thoroughly enjoyed the fire escape style section raised in the open space above the stage.

The technical components did well to bring cohesion to the production. The sound design was unique and well suited for the unsettling yet familiar environment, and the lighting was efficient in complementing this distorted warmth. All in all, this production has many redeeming factors that make it very watchable, and the pacing is strong and steady, never dragging as a result of Adly Guirgis’s razor sharp and speedy wit.

Between Riverside and Crazy is at Hampstead Theatre until 15 June 2024.