'Between Riverside and Crazy' review – Danny Sapani is a roaring, contradictory patriarch in this Pulitzer-winning play

Read our review of Stephen Adly Guirgis's New York-set drama Between Riverside and Crazy, now in performances at the Hampstead Theatre to 15 June.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Is there a more tireless actor in the London theatre just now than Danny Sapani? Within minutes, or so it seems, of his expert, take-no-prisoners occupancy of the title role in the Almeida's King Lear, here he is across town at the Hampstead, once again raging inimitably against the dying of the light.

His assignment this time is as Walter "Pops" Washington, the New Yorker and onetime cop at the belligerent centre of Between Riverside and Crazy. Stephen Adly Guirgis's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, seen both off and on Broadway, returns this ever-pungent dramatist to the one of the theatres where he first made a London stir with such titles as In Arabia We'd All Be Kings starring an up-and-comer 21 years ago called Tom Hardy.

Sapani is of course brilliantly established and adds to his impressive CV with this roaring portrait of a father who couples advocacy of a fibre-rich diet with a fondness for booze, and whose often-tetchy relationship with his wayward son Junior (Martins Imhangbe) owes no small debt to Death of a Salesman, which Imhangbe, in fact, was in at the Young Vic.

You can sense the particular appeal of this play in the city where it's set – specifically within a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive, in Manhattan, which Pops is inhabiting by an increasingly frayed, eviction-ready thread – and which is rather awkwardly realised in Max Jones's design: one can imagine the turntable deployed in 2022 on Broadway serving the material rather more deftly.

Still, the vigour of the writing, and its capacious embrace of humanity (a Guirgis constant), are always evident as the writer lays out a narrative alive with surprise and contradiction, not least the revelation saved for the first act curtain that our NYPD alum is – shock horror! – a Republican (which, as any New Yorker can tell you, doesn't come as that much of a shock).

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As the play devolves towards a deathbed drama, complete with the cast all but queueing up to have their bedside say, one's attentions are drawn both to Junior's weed-smoking girlfriend Lulu (Tiffany Gray) and to a fantastical personage, Church Lady (a brio-rich Ayesha Antoine), who seems to have abseiled in from the world of magical realism.

More rooted to the here and now are a police lieutenant, Dave (Daniel Lapaine), and his fiancée Audrey (Judith Roddy), a former colleague of Pops who has her own views on the backstory that drives the play – involving the shooting of Pops by a white rookie cop, the details of which take some while to snap into focus.

Dave argues on behalf of taking race out of the equation – not everything, he argues, is about being Black. (Then again, this is the same character whose jokey terrain is decidedly questionable.)

Completing the retinue is Pops's ex-con chum, Oswaldo (Sebastian Orozco). The assemblage seem all at one point or another to pass judgment on Pops so that we don't have to, only for their assessments to just as quickly be upended: he's "lovable" and "much-loved by God" but also in his own way crafty and cunning, and appearances, we learn, can be deceptive. One obvious example: he uses his late wife's wheelchair simply because it's available and around, not because physical incapacity demands it.

Michael Longhurst's production courses with the empathy found in the writing, not to mention a characteristic alertness to the storytelling swerves. "What a world it would be if what was right is enough," Pops muses at one point, to which one is tempted to reply: yes, but then there wouldn't be much drama.

Between Riverside and Crazy is at the Hampstead Theatre through 15 June. Book Between Riverside and Crazy tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Between Riverside and Crazy (Photo by Johan Persson)

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