Tag Archives: Stephen Adly Guirgis

“Between Riverside and Crazy” at the Hampstead Theatre

Danny Sapani’s star performance makes Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play fly. The script, neatly directed by Michael Longhurst, is a quality affair: considered, solid, maybe a touch slow to start. Sapani makes the most of the play’s strong moral dilemma and brings out the text’s focus and intrigue.

Sapani takes the part of Walter ‘Pops’ Washington, a former black police officer who was shot by a white rookie while off-duty. How’s that for a smart take on police violence? And if you think it needs a twist, well…Guirgis’ plotting is so strong it doesn’t deserve a spoiler.

Black, white, blue, and green

An eight-year battle for compensation brings money into the mix. Although Washington stresses his motivation is a matter of principles. Add his wife’s death and it’s no surprise our hero has been left a mess. Or has he? Maybe…he was troubled before. Throughout the twists Sapani commands attention. He is believable as both stubborn and dignified, gruff, yet loveable, easy to dislike and winning admiration. Washington is a strong creation, brought to life with style.

Martins Imhangbe
Martins Imhangbe

Unfortunately, the main character overwhelms the show. Other roles – all well-acted – don’t just pale, they fade away. Washington’s misfit family come too close to caricature. There are funny moments, with strong performances from Tiffany Gray and Ayesha Antoine. And moving ones, played by Sebastian Orozco and Martins Imhangbe (the later especially strong with a great mix of anger and frustration). But they are all just foils, circling around the central figure.

For a London audience, Sapani’s recent role as King Lear will spring to mind. Especially as the character’s rent controlled apartment is under treat and his kingdom about to disappear! Indeed, Washington’s ironically regal touch makes for great moments. But it’s the differences that are more interesting and come in the form of former colleagues, capably played by Daniel Lapaine and Judith Roddy. Their efforts to persuade Pops to settle his law case are strong scenes. Longhurst brings out considerable momentum. They show us different power dynamics, with a balance of discomfort and humour the whole show aims for but isn’t always present.

Until 15 June 2024


Photos by Johan Persson

“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” at the Young Vic

Prison dramas are pretty much a genre in their own right and this play from the year 2000 by Stephen Adly Guirgis must rank as one of the best. Tackling faith and justice, it’s a big issues piece with brains that leaves you with plenty to think about. It’s also full of compelling stories with a great plot. Entertaining and intelligent, what’s not to admire?

Guirgis writes the most wonderful roles and dialogue. Still, in presenting a debate, no matter how smart, each part could become a mere mouthpiece. With the help of a strong cast and expert direction from Kate Hewitt, every character is compelling and believable.

Ukweli Roach and Oberon KA Adjepong perform as two convicts thrown together during the one hour outside their cells allowed to them. It’s a simple enough device, but the detail provided by Guirgis is used to great effect by both men. Roach gives an emotional performance as the young Angel Cruz that shows the strain of incarceration gradually and wins sympathy carefully. As Lucius, you might guess that Adjepong gets the best lines, but the combination of charm and mania with which they are delivered is magnificent.

Unwell Roach and Dervla Kirwan

On the other side of the “cage”, Dervla Kirwan gives a great performance as Angel’s lawyer, driving the plot with excellent story-telling skills. The prison guards, played by Matthew Douglas and Joplin Sibtain, present moral ambiguities in a way that feels natural, respectively relating to the criminals in a personal and psychopathically macro level. These three, presumably the characters we are supposed to identify with most, pose provoking challenges to the audience.

Guirgis presents a fallible justice system and religious questions while avoiding the quagmires of moral relativism or scepticism, which means we can get some real-world thinking done! Any revival of a play this good is worth checking out. Hewitt’s production is certainly stylish. In a sense, she works harder than she has to. Using bright lights and discordant jazz in between scenes proves wearying and the set from Magda Willi, while effective, is a little showy. But the most important job, namely understanding and doing justice to the text, is precise and impeccable throughout.

Until 30 March 2019


Photos by Johan Persson

“The Motherf**cker In The Hat” at the National Theatre

A play that comes with its own stars, albeit an excessively modest two of them, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Broadway hit may have a title that fits uncomfortably with the National Theatre’s augustness, but The Motherf**cker In The Hat is a quality play that London should welcome. Detailing the struggles and affairs between a drug addict on probation, his ‘sponsor’ and their girlfriends, the work’s vigorous language belies its old-fashioned enquiry into morality.

Jpeg 1Ricardo Chavira plays Jackie, a troubled convict following a plan to free himself from addiction with a suitably cynical edge, making our hero hugely appealing despite his faults. Flor De Liz Perez (pictured) performs as Jackie’s partner, delivering vicious tirades with verve. Also from the States comes Yul Vázquez as Cousin Julio, delivering a marvellously understated, original performance. Completing this strong cast, directed flawlessly by Indhu Rubasingham, are Nathalie Armin as the unfortunate wife of the rehabilitated Ralph, the philandering sponsor with a PhD in persuasion, depicted brilliantly by Alec Newman as a devil who firmly believes he has all the best lines.

It can’t be denied that the play is reminiscent of a soap opera (or should that be a telenovela?), but the sordid plot twists, while predictable, are expertly handled and feel believable. Likewise, the bad language and lurid insults play their part, not just in making the script very funny, but in creating characters you really fall for. For all the shouting on stage, this is a work that quietly ensures we take seriously the questions it’s asking – about how to be good.

The play is calmer, less surreal, than Adly Guirgis’ other works seen in London. It’s tempting to say it feels more grown up, as that’s clearly one of the themes here; the talk of prayers and pharmaceuticals both play a part in questioning responsibility and relationships. Jackie and Ralph are just young men, with more than enough faults and few excuses. But Jackie has a heart and the potential for goodness that feels realistic and makes this play an unusually sharp comedy.

Until 20 August 2015


Photo by Mark Douet

“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” at St Leonard’s Church

Director and producer Antony Law has achieved the not inconsiderable coup of staging his latest production in St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch. It’s a superb location that’s sure to appeal to adventurous theatregoers. Also commendable is Law’s taste in plays. A remarkable work by Stephen Adly Guirgis, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot is a surreal imagining of a courtroom trial that aims to free Judas from hell.

Guirgis’ text rockets back and forth through history calling to the stand not just biblical figures but also Sigmund Freud and Mother Teresa. Sadly, Law’s direction doesn’t quite match the pace, so the production lacks the bravura appeal that the writing demands. More vitally, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot should be bitingly funny. Maybe the church atmosphere stifles the laughs, but the humour just doesn’t come through.

The production is ably guided by the prosecuting and defence councils, played with humour and skill by Michael Aguilo and Laurence Bouvard. Unfortunately, the rest of the casting is uneven. For all the strength of the play, it feels as if Guirgis has written devices rather than developed characters, and short scenes on the witness stand that should excite are played too long.

A notable exception is Shereen Russell who plays Saint Monica with a provocative streetwise style – her scene is one of the moments in the production that really works. And St Leonard’s fantastic acoustics are used to such great effect that, despite its flaws, the opportunity Law has provided for seeing this fantastic work is worth taking advantage of.

Until 19 May 2013

Photo by Sheila Burnett

Written 22 April 2013 for The London Magazine