Philip Ridley’s Vincent River returns to the stage with the same magnetic intensity, despite an 11-year absence from the stage. A play seemingly ahead of its time, Vincent River’s emotions ring just as true in 2018 where in recent times there has been an increase in the amount of hate crimes committed, and we are nearing the two year anniversary of the Orlando Nightclub shooting. Ridley’s play forces the audience to confront the many aspects of grief, from the perspective of a mother, a lover, a stranger and a friend. Its brilliance lies in its ability to do this with strong doses of humour and an excellent knowledge of East London geography.

Vincent River is the story of Anita (Louise Jameson) who has recently lost her only son in a homophobic attack and is trying to move on with her life. Having only learned of her son’s sexuality after his death, Anita has been forced to move due to abuse from her former neighbours. One night she meets Davey (Thomas Mahy), a young man who has been lurking around her house and the two discover they have more in common than meets the eye. The play is extremely visual in its description of the memories of the characters and creates some truly stunning moments simply through its use of words. The storyline is heart-breaking, touching on issues such as social housing, media sensationalism and the realities of being a single parent. However, the journey to get to the truth of what happened to Vincent can at times feel stagnant, taking too many detours, and because of the emotions of the piece and shifts from comic to tragic moments, it can be exhausting.

Jameson’s Anita is a proper East-Ender poised and groomed, a former seamstress who’s been living in the area all her life. Ridley tinges Anita with bigoted comments, making a broader point about intolerance in society and painting her as a flawed person who has to struggle to make sense of her terrible loss. Her voice becomes glazed with sugar when she talks about her son’s achievements, particularly when she recalls when he was cast as an angel in the school play and she made him wings from “real silk” not the fake stuff. Her loss feels so real, and we know she’s not just been robbed of a son but of a best friend as well. Headstrong, it feels like even more of a tragedy to watch her collapse under the weight of her grief, after hearing her regale Davey with outdated jokes.

Mahy is not totally convincing as Davey at first. There seems to be something inauthentic about his performance and his energy frequently misses that of Jameson’s. But the moment Davey lets go and describes the first time he fell in love, he becomes magnetic. A new energy exudes from his performance, and this incites hysteria and the audience watches with despair as he reveals the fate of the person he once loved. His performance is truly special.

Vincent River is a deeply moving play that makes the audience lament society’s intolerance with bitterness. Bitterness and anger that is still as tangible as it was in 2000, when the play was first performed, in 2018.

Vincent River is playing at Park Theatre until 31 March

Photo: David Monteith Hodge