Riff Raff opens on Halloween with two criminals, Billy, aka Torch (Eugene O’Hare) and Mike, aka 20-20 (Karl Collins), stumbling into a disused crack-den on New York’s Lower East Side. They need a place to hide having just robbed one of the city’s most notorious drug lords of 3 kilograms of smack and killed his nephew into the bargain. Billy is in pain from a gunshot wound in his hand while Mike alternates between taut anxiety – the sound of a rat sends him into a panic – and fury with Billy who he blames for their situation. They wait for Mike’s old friend Tony, aka the Tiger, who they hope will get them out of the city safely.
It’s an urgent opening that seems to promise lively stuff to follow. But when Tony (Ariyon Bakare) arrives the pace falls away. The next hour is largely spent with Tony and Mike reminiscing about how they met, got involved in crime and ended up in prison together. There is some rather obvious exposition too as Mike tells Tony how he and Billy have ended up in this mess: Tony actually utters the line, “Okay and then what happened?”
In fairness Fishburne clearly wants to explore the ties of loyalty and friendship between the three men, as well as the jealousy and distrust that threaten these ties, and he succeeds in this. However, in spite of first-rate performances from all three actors, the central part of the play effectively slows to a crawl. Spelling everything out leaves the audience little space to work things out for themselves - a surprise from a writer raised in TV and film. Fishburne also gives Tony a curiously out of place account of time spent living off the earnings of a woman alternately referred to as “bitch” and “ho”. Although decorated with rhymes and the rhythms of rap this contributes nothing to the story and seems little more than a misogynist rant.
Changes in the lighting, well-designed by Dan Hill, go some way to breaking up all this talk and the play arrives, via a couple of clever twists, at its bitter end. The audience now appreciates the symbolism of the rat heard at the start. But overall Riff Raff rehearses a well-worn scenario with characters who might have stepped out of an HBO crime drama. As to why it was set on Halloween, the audience leaves the theatre none the wiser.