Vincent River (Trafalgar Studios 2)

Vincent River (Trafalgar Studios 2, until June 22nd)

Hate crime, according to statistics, is on the increase around the world. In the UK there is such concern about the global issue that the #WeStandTogether campaign and National Hate Crime Awareness Week aim to raise awareness and encourage communities to come together.

East Londoner Philip Ridley is known for his angry, “in-yer- face” plays and other works which reflect something of his geographical background – his first three plays form what is known as an East End Gothic Trilogy. In his fourth play, Vincent River, he lays aside a lot of the personal fury to bring together two characters who are very much affected by one form of hate crime – the death of a young man following a homophobic attack in Shoreditch.

Vincent River was first performed in 2000 and in 2007 was staged at the Trafalgar Studios, where it now returns following a hugely successful revival at the Park Theatre last year. Nearly 20 years on the play is still depressingly relevant and still has the power to shock.

Played out in real time over the space of 80 minutes, we are thrown immediately into a conversation between a grieving mother, whose 19-year-old son has been found dead in public toilets used for cottaging and who has moved house in the wake of unkindness and intolerance from neighbours, and the young man who found the body, who has oddly been stalking the mum and ends up in her new home. In spite of the subject matter the play’s opening, at least, manages to contain a lot of humour and lightness.

It undoubtedly feels contrived, but it can hardly be anything else as the dramatic confrontation cuts through the aftermath of grief and explores the question of needing to know the truth and being honest in such a short time. As more is revealed about each of the characters (and indeed about the dead Vincent in what becomes an unsettling ménage a trois) the mood darkens as both try to understand the relationship they had with the deceased.

Thomas Mahy, brilliantly making his West End debut as Davey, has the lean and hungry look of a young man desperate to gather information, eager to unleash tortured inner demons. There is almost a dimension of Greek tragedy as he seeks in Vincent’s mum both a mother figure and something more than maternal. It is a potent, coiled spring of a performance that reaches a climax in a riveting graphic monologue that unsettles and uncovers truth that might have been better hidden.

Playing the mother, Anita, Louise Jameson turns in an award-worthy performance of skill and depth. First the vulnerable woman stung by revelations about her son and the harsh reality of his death at the hands of thugs, then the determined seeker of truth whatever the cost, then the hurt mother who has a scream ripped out of her by devastating honesty, a sound of unmitigated pain that haunts and harrows. It is a compelling and energetic performance that switches between a range of emotions with ease, underlining a vibrant ability. If this was one of the best stage performances of 2018, it is surely also one of the best of 2019.

The two actors play off each other expertly, pacing around the small space in a way that one might even believe was a terrifying tango, judging each other, spinning uncontrollably apart then together in a display of intense dynamic and dramatic choreography. Or maybe it’s a simple game of cat and mouse where the question of who is predator and who the prey is an enigma. Either way, their rapport is electrifying.

Director Robert Chevara makes the very best of the intimate space, even smaller than its previous Park Theatre home. Nicolai Hart Hansen’s set may be simple, but it does what it must to set the scene and allow the striking colours of the text and performances to stand out. The actors are so close to the audience here that even the slightest or most subtle flicker of emotion can be seen and both Jameson and Mahy recognise this, with every heartbeat given significance.

Ultimately the play doesn’t deal with the larger issues as one might hope it should, though perhaps there is hope and optimism in the recognition of the need to live with pain, move on within loss, and carry on in acceptance of truths revealed about others and oneself.

What is undeniable is that this is a production that gives no breathing space, has the power to appal, and is likely to leave the audience shattered. It is indeed a harrowing experience, but in the hands of such accomplished actors every momnet matters.

David Guest

Image, Scott Rylander

A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub