“Between Riverside and Crazy” at Hampstead Theatre 

Neil Dowden in north London
20 May 2024 

All credit to Hampstead Theatre for once again staging the UK premiere of an award-winning play by a leading contemporary American dramatist. This time it is Stephen Adly Guirgis’s dark comedy-drama Between Riverside and Crazy, which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Like other plays by him such as Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train and The Motherfucker with the Hat, it probes the seedy underbelly of multicultural New York life – crime, drug addiction, racial inequality – via earthy street language and pungent humour. And however desperate the plight of the protagonists there is always the chance of redemption. 


Danny Sapani and Ayesha Antoine.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


In Between Riverside and Crazy, the central character – hard-drinking widower Walter ‘Pops’ Washington – is not a criminal but a black policeman, forced to retire early after being shot while off-duty in a dodgy all-night bar by a white cop – which he claims was racially motivated. Not only has Walter been in dispute with NYPD and the municipality over compensation for several years, he is in danger of losing his large, rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Walk in Upper West Side due to the insalubrious company he keeps there. 

Walter’s son Junior has only recently been released from prison but he seems to be using the apartment as a base for handling stolen goods. Junior’s girlfriend Lulu claims she is studying accountancy but may be a sex worker – and is she really pregnant with Walter’s grandchild as she tells him? Walter also acts as a father figure – they all call him ‘Dad’ – to recovering drug addict Oswaldo whose behaviour is unpredictable. 

When Walter’s former detective colleague Audrey and her fiancé Dave, an ambitious lieutenant, come for dinner, he is touched that she wants him to walk her down the aisle – but it turns out there are ulterior motives for their visit. And is the Church Lady intent on saving his soul – or arousing his body – all she seems? The mood darkens as doubts arise about the truth of Walter’s claim, and how good a cop and husband he really was. 


The ensemble.
Photo credit: Johan Persson.


As always, Guirgis deals with – indeed revels in – deeply flawed, unreliable, and untrustworthy characters who have the capacity to do much better given the right circumstances. There’s an awful lot packed into this play – which touches on the criminal justice system, social housing, and racial tensions – that intrigues but isn’t satisfactorily developed. The demotic dialogue – fizzing with humorous, foul-mouthed invective – is compelling, while the characters are engaging, but after a tremendous first half the play lapses into implausibility and sentimentality. 

Michael Longhurst’s entertaining production – his first since stepping down as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse – holds our interest without quite being able to pull all the threads of the play together. Max Jones’s design shows a capacious but run-down apartment scattered with cardboard boxes and maintenace equipment, incorporating areas for diner-kitchen, living room (including a Christmas tree whose significance is only revealed later), and a boxed bedroom at the back which at one point is pushed forward. Graffitied walls and an elevated gangway suggest the New York urban setting, as does the noise of traffic and sirens in Richard Hammarton’s sound design. 

Fresh from much acclaim for his powerhouse performance as King Lear at the Almeida, Danny Sapani sympathetically plays another self-destructive patriarchal figure in Walter. Again, he is a charismatic presence, mixing bluster with vulnerability as Walter wavers on the brink of disaster – or resurrection. Martins Imhangbe is a brooding Junior whose repressed mixed emotions towards his father lead to confrontation, while Tiffany Gray makes an impressive professional stage debut as the streetwise Lulu looking for security and Sebastian Orozco is the emotionally unstable Oswaldo. Judith Roddy’s Audrey acts as a sincere peacemaker in contrast with the more aggressive approach of Daniel Lapine’s Dave during their negotiations with Walter. And Ayesha Antoine puts on an amusing turn as the Church Lady on a mission who miraculously stimulates new life in the impotent Walter.