Review: Woody Allen's Riverside Drive

Arjun Sajip 3 May 2013

Woody Allen’s Riverside Drive

Corpus Playroom, 7pm, Tuesday 30th to Saturday 4th May

Do yourself a favour: go and see this play. You owe it to yourself after all your hard work, slaving away in various stages of solipsism and solitude. Regain your sanity by seeing a play where sanity is thrown out the window – or at least, twisted and manipulated by the weird tidal forces of Woody Allen’s universe.

The structure of the play itself is hardly insane. Neither is the ‘message’, or the ‘plot’, or the set-design. What is insane is Saul Boyer’s powerhouse performance as an unhinged hobo: the dark, menacing Jiminy Cricket to Seb Sutcliffe’s hapless Pinocchio. The interplay between the two is priceless, and provides an essential break from revision.

The play is essentially a two-hander, with the two characters – Saul’s Fred and Seb’s Jim – polar opposites prima facie. Fred is a down-and-out psychotic with apparently homicidal tendencies, who takes it upon himself to dispense tough moral advice to successful writer Jim. An interesting strand that runs through the play is the idea that Jim stole Fred’s ideas, experience, even his “life” (as Fred puts it), and made a successful screenplay out of it. As the play progresses, however, it is difficult to not see Fred as Jim’s monstrous id: a manifestation of his repressed guilt at his extra-marital affair, and a brutal force of self-correction and self-castigation.

Riverside Drive is still recognisably a Woody Allen play. References to philosophers abound (although Kierkegaard’s name is absent, for a change), a perfect mix of verbal wit and slapstick is attained, themes of infidelity and guilt are rife, and references to things like “thermo-nuclear masochism” place us firmly in Allen territory. There are also hints of self-plagiarism: in large part, the play is significantly similar to the Martin Landau narrative in Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989). But existential comedy-drama is one of Allen’s specialities, and the lightweight nature of Riverside Drive is transcended in this wonderful Corpus production, directed with pace, wit and refreshing originality by directors David Rattigan and Matthew Lee.

Boyer deserves particular credit for managing to elevate a rather inscrutable character – a “mendicant… vagrant… homeless guy!” who may or may not have enjoyed a once-fruitful, respectable life – into a comic gem. He avoids the usual challenge faced by males delivering Allen’s dialogue: a possible lapse into Allenesque cadences and their accompanying physical mannerisms. Instead, like the character he is supposed to be playing, he is a force of nature, elevating a piece of light but intelligent comedy into something a little more. Sutcliffe’s character is more of an Allen trope, and is therefore less interesting, and more like the Allen persona we all know; it seems at points like Sutcliffe is impersonating that persona, an easy and tempting slip that has afflicted even greats such as Kenneth Branagh, Sean Penn and John Cusack. Rattigan and Lee might have been more aware of this pitfall. Still, Sutcliffe handles the slapstick – particularly one inspired scene involving a bin – deftly, and his facial expressions and squeaky voice work to hilarious effect.

Seeing Allen’s work in theatrical form sheds new light on his masterful prose works. Some of his prose is better read aloud, but this Corpus production redefines and recontextualises Allen’s written humour, transposing it from an incessant stream of gags-as-prose to a series of better-paced, absurd (and absurdist) riffs on everyday life that play with our assumptions regarding issues such as homelessness. And it does all this while sticking to a tried-and-tested Allen formula.

Plaudits must also go to the fabulous programme-design: a booklet of several wonderfully illustrated pages that enhance the darkly surrealistic vibe of this hugely entertaining and consummately produced staging. I repeat: go and see Woody Allen’s Riverside Drive.

Arjun Sajip