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Theatre Review When you can’t breathe, it ain’t funny

MARY CONWAY relishes a magnificent performance and the rich street language in a flawed depiction of racist police violence in downtown New York

Between Riverside and Crazy
Hampstead Theatre, London


PLAYWRIGHT Stephen Adly Guirgis commands a dramatic niche all of his own as he immerses us in the hidden entrails of downtown New York in this Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy/drama from 2014.

Following his previously acclaimed works such as The Motherfucker With The Hat and Jesus Hopped The “A” Train, Guirgis returns to a world where the law and criminality, drugs and sobriety, truth and lies, God and retribution, duck and dive together until none is distinguishable from its opposite. 

What marks the work out is the tumbling torrent of rich street language that crosses the cultural divide and shows us the US in all its confused and cataclysmic detail. It could be a great play, except that the jolting about-turns and insistent comic emphasis sell out on the major theme that screams to be unfurled.  

Walter Washington — a black retired cop, now widowed and living in a rent-controlled home with his just-out-of-prison son, his son’s girlfriend (or is she a prostitute?) and a recovering (or is he?) drug addict — was shot six times in the backside by a white police officer while off duty.

He has since taken out a civil suit against the force which has brought them down upon his head. And in one spectacular scene we experience the full entrenchment of racism — personal and institutional — in a country that boasts of its fairness and equality. 

This is the theme of the play. And, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement, you can’t just raise this iniquity only to brush it away, blur the argument and dissolve into comedy as happens here. 

There are lots of laughs, wacky characters and a truly talented grasp of the language, style and thinking of the people from this very precise setting. And notable director Michael Longhurst carries it along with purpose and poetical pace.

Key to the enjoyment is the truly magnificent performance of Danny Sapani who comes to Walter direct from playing King Lear. In Sapani’s hands, the character carries a weight worthy of an Arthur Miller or a Eugene O’Neill, the great patriarch he displays — profound, complex, larger than life and charismatic — filling the stage and piercing the hearts of his audience.

It is for this performance that this production will be remembered, even though it shirks its nobler calling and reneges on its ultimate purpose. 

Ayesha Antoine makes a delighfully seductive Church Lady and Tiffany Grey as Lulu flits around the stage like a tiny bird. Daniel Lapaine, meanwhile, brings us a morally vacant white police officer who rings unnervingly true.

Designer Max Jones also defines this production with his truly memorable set — itself an artistic creation of note, where idealised and perfect inserts sit alongside details of dereliction and squalor. Similarly, sound designer and composer Richard Hammarton intersperses the ceaselessly brutal language of argument with thrilling trumpet trills.

This play was written before the George Floyd murder but is diminished in its wake. A powerful production and culturally penetrative, if flawed. 

Runs until June 15. Box office: (020) 7722-9301,


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