The Company of Between Riverside and Crazy. Credit Johan Persson.

Between Riverside and Crazy at Hampstead Theatre

I was lucky enough to see the original off-Broadway production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ two-act drama at the Atlantic Theatre exactly a decade ago, just before it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Michael Longhurst’s revival finally brings it to London. On Hampstead Theatre’s main stage, this production feels much bigger as an act of spectacle – and certainly design scale – than the world premiere. Whilst the original production was decidedly (and perhaps forcibly) kitchen sink – and already literally located on Manhattan’s West Side (about 50 blocks below the scripted setting) – Longhurst’s production occupies a larger stage and, together with his designer Max Jones, makes grander gestures.

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.

At the heart of the story is a man, self-described “African American, senior citizen, decorated police officer and war hero”, Walter ‘Pops’ Washington (Danny Sapani) hanging on to his turf with the threat of eviction over his head. Holding the fort or occupying the estate – and the dreams and status they represent – whilst invading forces threaten, is a classic dramatic device – from A Streetcar Named Desire to The Cherry Orchard. Of course, nothing can evoke a sense of ascent and descent in a single generation more than New York real estate. Add to it the golden ticket of the nearly mythical, and universally coveted, rent-controlled apartment – not least one with views of the Hudson River – and the dramatic stakes are as high as the Chrysler Building. Indeed, the New York property scramble is effectively a character in this play as much as any of the family members, colleagues, or seeming do-gooders, and in its text is deftly drawn. Yet on stage, something is off-kilter with the proportions of the domestic space/character Jones has created which muddles the dramatic intent. Hampstead Theatre’s stage is undivided as a panorama which creates a tableau too broad to incubate the necessary familial claustrophobia the story demands and yet too bity to give a sense of flow between scenes or worlds. Exterior decoration of the wider city, be it large-scale graffiti art or projections of yellow taxi traffic on an avenue, comes off as half-hearted: somewhat metaphoric but not entrancing enough to be transporting or imagistic but too literal to feel like an impressive naturalistic installation. I wouldn’t normally kick off about set design but this is a play about the lengths people will go to preserve their physical settings and what it says about them. The vista matters.

Despite a scenic character that doesn’t quite earn its plaudits, the human cast is outstanding – and dare I say in places more compelling than the original production. Danny Sapani is nothing short of brilliant: simultaneously infuriating, bathetic and appealing as the former cop who finds himself widowed and in trouble – quite possibly meeting catastrophe due to his illusions about the strength of his persona – not unlike Blanche Dubois in Streetcar. Indeed, the discordant trumpeting that moves us between moments (sound design and composition by Richard Hammarton) feels like a nod to Kazan’s production of the Williams drama. There is much of the 20th-century American playhouse tradition in this show and it works. Ayesha Antoine as the Church Lady has timing more precise than the clock at Grand Central Station and propels much of the production’s comedy and complexity with a tour de force opening of the second act. Martin Imhangbe gives a physically commanding and emotionally subtle performance as Junior, forced to endure the drama of his father with little recognition of his own world and its struggles. Whilst the American accents of the two serving police officers (Judith Roddy as Audrey and Daniel Lapaine as Dave) are somewhat approximate compared to natives, their feeling is strong and they crucially help thicken the plot exactly as the script demands.

Between Riverside and Crazy is of course a play about ‘identity’ and the ‘intersection of power’ in the same way pretty much every Tennessee Williams and Chekov play is – for who we think we are and what that gets us is exactly the stuff of drama, no matter the time or setting. This is a strong and satisfying, if not entirely perfect, production.

4 Stars

Review by Mary Beer

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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