A tense two-hander

Vincent River | Hampstead Theatre, London
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The Independent Culture

On my way home from Vincent River at Hampstead, it was my great good fortune to witness the antics of a couple of drunken young suits at the railway station. They were reeling up to lone men (myself included) and yelling "Ooh, haven't you a home-osexual to go to?" Trÿs amusant. Their behaviour was an ironic coda to the evening because the starting point of the powerful new Philip Ridley play I'd just watched is the vicious homophobic killing of a 35-year-old gay man, left pulped in a public lavatory on a disused railway station in east London.

On my way home from Vincent River at Hampstead, it was my great good fortune to witness the antics of a couple of drunken young suits at the railway station. They were reeling up to lone men (myself included) and yelling "Ooh, haven't you a home-osexual to go to?" Trÿs amusant. Their behaviour was an ironic coda to the evening because the starting point of the powerful new Philip Ridley play I'd just watched is the vicious homophobic killing of a 35-year-old gay man, left pulped in a public lavatory on a disused railway station in east London.

This tense two-hander takes place several weeks after the atrocity in the bare flat to which the man's mother (Julie Legrand) has been forced to move. Her first visitor, who has himself just been beaten up by thugs, is the 17-year-old boy, Davey (William Mannering), who found her son's corpse that snowy winter evening. This shaking youth tells her that he can't get the picture of Vincent out of his mind and he desperately needs to talk. The mother is on her guard. Why has the boy been shadowing her without making direct contact until now? Has he come to confess to the crime? Or is it just morbid curiosity on his part?

Ms Legrand's excellent performance offers a vivid portrait of the kind of heterosexual woman who has a gay man's sensibility. There's a slight touch of the flamboyant, knowing drag act about her. Not that this seems to have made her officially conscious of her son's inclinations. A gay lavatory is far from being the type of cottage she had in mind for him. She questions Davey about the circumstances of his discovery, pouncing on slips and inconsistencies. In his version, he was taking a short cut home across the railway lines in the company of his fiancée after their engagement party. But Anita knows that this is not a short cut to the place that they were going. So why the detour via a spot the local paper dubbed the "Sodom and Gomorrha of Bethnal Green"? Indeed, you find yourself wondering where Davey intends to take this lucky girl on honeymoon - Mykonos or Fire Island? It's entirely up to you, darling.

At first, it looks as though the play is going to be a study of two people in deep denial brought together by a tragedy. But the piece gradually sacrifices subtle sympathies for lurid symmetries. As the couple drain a bottle of gin and share a joint (with the boy popping tranquillisers, too), it emerges that Davey knew Vincent very well indeed. Unfolding a predictable pattern of two men from different generations whose lives have both been distorted by mothers, it suggests that innocence and experience are not necessarily directly related to age. Drama gives way to Oedipal drama-therapy as Davey conducts the mother on a wallowingly painful re-enactment of their affair, with Anita now taking the role of the son.

Matthew Lloyd's production is splendidly acted and compulsively watchable, but I felt that Ridley pushed proceedings into an artificially existential area where vital matter-of-fact questions, such as how Davey might help to catch the killers, were simply abandoned. As for the baroque flights in the writing, such as the fantasy of not being able to stop coming and then emerging as a butterfly from the cocoon of your own solidified semen - well, I don't want to boast about the company I keep, but I think I've heard that one before.

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