Philip Ridley has long been fascinated with storytelling: as escape, as confrontation, as purgation, as an act which can empower the listener but much more so the teller. His other specialist subject, spanning his work for adults and children alike, is the refusal of young people to be the simple creatures as which adults cast them; emotional complexity and even sexuality, Ridley repeatedly illustrates, may be well in place even as grown-ups are fetishising the imagined innocence of the young.
However, in his latest play, Vincent River, at the Hampstead Theatre, Ridley eschews the fantastical tinsel trappings of many of his other stories, and presents a tale set not only in the real world but in a series of specific east London locations, as Anita, the mother of the murdered man who gives the play its title, and Davey, the seventeen-year-old who found the body, exchange reminiscences both personal and mutual.
Ridley covers a great deal of ground here. There is the pervading theme of homophobia: the late Vincent's body was found in a gay "cottage" in Shoreditch, and it is fairly obvious from the first that Davey will turn out to be either his lover or his killer, and possibly both; Anita, for all her denials, cannot disguise her horror and disgust on finding out her son's proclivities. There is the aforementioned awkward status of teens: Anita repeatedly, and with deliberate disdain, refers to Davey as a "schoolboy", even though she reveals that she was barely older than him when she found herself bearing Vincent. Above all, there is the power of the story. In the opening phase of the 100-minute play, Anita is dominant by virtue of her status as bereaved mother, but also of her greater experience and store of anecdote; as things progress, she and Davey find a commonality, and stories are exchanged as between equals; in the final movement, Davey seizes the upper hand, knowing that the crucial tale is his to tell and not simply recounting it but acting it out (as in Equus, the young man pops a pill and "abreacts" the crucial episode). All is written in a style at once discreet and possessed of a praeternaturally sharp edge.
Matthew Lloyd directs his fifth Ridley production with all the awareness that experience brings of the author's dramatic dynamics. William Mannering is utterly compelling as Davey, and Julie Legrand only falls behind him in her silent response-acting during the final couple of minutes. Although Ridley's great skills have never been in doubt, it has hitherto been possible for more earnest parties to sideline him as writing in somehow "lesser" veins – plays and books for children, or overtly fantastical tales. Vincent River signals that at last that possibility is no more.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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