It would be easy to dismiss Philip Ridley’s 20-year-old play about a homophobic hate crime as a period piece, writes Cary Gee, lacking relevance, in much the same way that Jonathon Harvey’s coming-out play Beautiful Thing, or Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg, set against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, now seem quaint, rather than shocking.
But the day after I saw Vincent River, I woke up to the news that a lesbian couple had been viciously attacked by a gang of young men while travelling on a London night bus. As long as hate is with us, Ridley’s searing portrayal of the aftermath of a homophobic murder remains as pertinent as ever.
Bringing it to life are young Thomas Mahy as Davey, all angry vowels and a black eye beneath his hoodie, and Louise Jameson, who, as Anita, the mother of murdered Vincent, enjoys an almost coquettish flirtation with her son’s friend, before the truth, revealed over an agonising 80 minutes, turns her into a howling ball of rage.
Davey has stalked Anita all the way to the new home she has fled to following the brutal murder of Vincent. She demands to know why, and so we learn through some darkly humorous verbal sparring, how it was that Davey discovered Vincent’s body, in the kind of cottage you don’t find pictured in Country Life.
As Davey’s relationship with Vincent is unpicked, Anita is forced to re-examine her own relationship with her dead son. Davey is both interlocutor and bogeyman, in possession of truths Anita can neither live with or without, and her grief, when it comes, is as appalling as the events that led to it. As audience we have no choice but to accept Davey’s account at face value, which makes Anita’s initial incredulity a dramatic necessity, and Ridley’s denouement, when it comes, is no less shocking for its seeming inevitability.
Mahy, making his West End debut, is terrific, a grenade waiting to explode and (despite his vowels) utterly believable in his slow-dawning acceptance that the body on the toilet floor could just have easily been his, while Jameson puts in a heart-rending performance of shattering intensity as a mother who finally gets to grieve.
Next time a straight mate asks you why we still need Pride, just tell them to go and see this play.
Vincent River is at Trafalgar Studios Two, London, until 22 June.