Vincent River

Joe Nawaz finds that society continues to be 'soft on the causes of hate crime'

Philip Ridley’s darkly-hued and reflective play makes a fitting theatrical centrepiece for this year’s Belfast Pride. And who better than the ever-so-well-versed Prime Cut to steer this powerful ten-year-old two-hander and grasp its sad, ongoing contemporary resonance?

The story – ostensibly about the aftermath of a brutal homophobic murder (of the eponymous Vincent) – begins, and ends, in a kind of small, intimate squalor. It’s perfectly suited to the spanking new black box space at the spanking new Crescent Arts Centre. In fact, the set of exposed skeletal timber beams, rotting window frame and a fetid sink fitting almost passes for the remnants of the old Crescent. It’s the centre of the Vincent River world – his mother Anita’s depressing new flat. Into this beige, blighted cell slinks battered and bruised Davey – a prickly 16-year old with a conscience that won’t quit.

What ensues is a gradual unravelling of the truth of what happened on the night of Vincent’s cruel and brutal demise. A mother’s grief framed by the clinical precision and faux-certainty of media reports ('Vincent River, Homosexual Victim') is further coloured, tempered and then compounded by Davey’s ever-shifting ‘eye-witness’ recollections of finding Vincent’s body in a notorious public toilet. A veritable one-man East End production of Rashomon.

Of course, nobody in the audience is in any doubt as to the final, devastating truth of the matter, but this isn’t a play with a climactic twist per se. It’s more a case of how the characters navigate their way from distrust to crushing, mutual revelation. And thanks to fine performances from Eleanor Methven as Anita and newcomer Kerr Logan as Davey, this journey through Ridley’s powerfully humane script is mostly a joy.

Each has their grandstanding moments and the genuine rather touching chemistry between the actors allows them to alternate those moments in a generous and effortless fashion. Feckless Davey is both cathartic angel and tormenting devil as Anita’s gradual acquisition of precious facts is recompensed with the currency of her own poignant personal disclosures.

The play’s real power is in the little exchanges between the two, the tiny reminiscences, the miniscule scraps of comfort that strike a note. The humour, when it comes (such as the very funny ‘ear’ joke at the start of the play) is made all the more funny by the realisation that it’s a fast-burning fuel that offers only fleeting respite.

Ridley’s feel for the people and place of east London shines through his script and is communicated ably through the unfussy and efficient direction of Sophie Motley. If the inevitable, almost uncomfortably squeamish denouement seems little more than a slightly gratuitous howl into the void, it’s because Motley’s hitherto dedicated focus on the minutiae of interaction has drawn the audience so effectively into this quietly upsetting and yet somehow tender world.

Along with the more fantastical Heartless – Ridley’s recent foray into cinema – Vincent River is drenched in the ambience of inner-city entropy. The dimly-lit murk of council flat existence is astutely realised and the ever present, menacing hum of the ‘world outside’ is evocative.

Despite the setting and contemporary language, Vincent River is effectively a timeless play in a great social realist tradition. The violent hate crime at the centre of it is truly horrible, but so too is the more 'acceptable' prejudices demonstrated here – ordinary people’s ordinary distaste for gays, Anita’s victimisation upon becoming an unmarried mother by a married man, and, perhaps most simultaneously subtle and obvious of all, the tragedy that the characters in Ridley’s world are compelled to soldier on amidst the small squalor that’s their lot.

There’s no redemptive outlet for old women and teenage boys living in council flats in Dagenham. The violence and bigotry are brought into starker relief by the remarkable characters struggling to maintain a life in the direst of circumstances. It’s this backdrop that allows us to wonder at the helplessness of the wider human condition. You can substitute sexuality for race, for gender, for age even. As director Motley says, hatred is a universal concept.

Unfortunately, so too is the kind of deprivation that made social realist theatre a great transformative hope in the middle of the last century. It’s tragic and telling how little has really changed as the vitality of this production of Vincent River pays ambivalent testimony to.

Prime Cut have lived up to their name here in making a connecting jab with this powerful little play that shows that society is soft on hate crime, and even more profoundly, soft on the causes of hate crime.

Vincent River runs in the Crescent Arts Centre until August 7.