You think you know what you’re getting. For audiences dulled into insensibility by wall-to-wall Walford, the too-familiar sounds of the voices of EastEnders raised in conflict evokes a weary resignation. Not this again. Philip Ridley’s Vincent River, first performed in the year 2000, is definitely not that again. Nor is it, despite the insistence of the promotional material for Green Carnation’s revival at Hope Mill Theatre, strictly speaking a ‘psychological thriller’.
It’s undoubtedly psychological in that it empathetically dramatises the blast damage of trauma in two people devastated in different ways by a homophobic murder, but the wary tango the pair perform as they reveal themselves to each other is closer to the stuff of kitchen sink drama, albeit one in which the sink in question is a place for hiding gin, proverbially a mother’s ruin. The script demands a great deal of its two leads, requiring them to unravel convincingly, moving between intimacy and estrangement with little more than their dialogue to hide behind. Fortunately, Ridley’s words are bulletproof, affording Maddy Myles’ Anita and Rory McMenamin’s Davey sufficient cover to inhabit their respective roles.
Early in the play’s single act, an overhead bulb blows in the still-unfurnished Dagenham flat into which Maddy is moving her memories, notionally leaving only the naked light of a table lamp to illuminate proceedings, and the direction, by Dan Ellis and Dan Jarvis functions in a similar way, starkly picking out the rawness of her emotions as she invites a black-clad, black-eyed Davey in from the cold, tempting fate and evoking admonitions about vampiric visitations. There’s something of Nietzsche in the way that both deliver monologues into the audience, as though it’s the abyss staring back at them.
One of the drama’s beauties, if one so harrowing can be said to be beautiful, is the way such allusions never feel forced. In the same way, the queasy circles of its structure seem less a show of Ridley’s cleverness, and more akin to the deliberate turning of a skewer, opening up skin and bone to get to the heart of the matter.
For Maddy, it’s her wilful blindness to her only son’s sexuality; for Davey it’s a different kind of deceit. Each has something the other wants, each knows more than they’re prepared to let on. Their dance around each other is at once bare-knuckle boxing, an interrogation, a family reunion and even a courtship. The two bring out the best and the worst in each other, until at last there’s nothing left but the truth. Somehow or other, there are cracks where the lights get in, as when Maddy describes her attempts to fly-tip her dead son’s gay porn, for all the world like Batman in the television movie trying to dispose of a bomb.
If you’re wrong about what you’re getting, you’re never in doubt about what’s coming, much as you wish that the death itself wasn’t. The denouement, as Vincent’s last moments are re-enacted at one remove, is every line as uncomfortable as it should be. It requires Myles and McMenamin to suffer with Vincent, in a kind of Passion Play without resurrection. A false note would be fatal, but their performances ring true.
An audience who were gregariously voluble before the curtain went up are left silenced as it comes down. Until the applause rises, warding off the darkness.
Unflinching in its slow dissection of the barbs of the human heart, unafraid to laugh at their absurdities, and unforgiving of the pack mentality that leaves a young man dead, Vincent River refuses to concede the false consolation of a neat resolution. What you get is theatre as urgent as life, and as serious as death.
Don’t look away.
Images by Shay Rowan. Main image: Maddy Myles & Rory McMenamin (‘Vincent River’, image by Shay Rowan, 2022)
Vincent River is at Hope Mill Theatre until October 19, 2022. For more information, click here.