Anita and Davey have much in common although it doesn't appear that way when they first meet. Anita has noticed Davey skulking around outside her home where she's just been forced to move after the murder of her son, Vincent. At the start of the play, Davey's face is bruised and bleeding - it seems that he's been beaten. As the story unfolds we learn that he discovered Vincent's body after he'd been brutally attacked. But it's obvious from Davey's demeanour that that's not the total picture.
Loss features significantly in this tense, gritty and poignant short drama. Anita's son was the victim of a homophobic attack some 3 months ago, and Davey's mother has just died from cancer. Essentially, these two characters are outsiders in the working-class environment where they both live.
Two-handers can be extraordinarily difficult to perform. It might sound like an obvious thing to say, but it takes two to make these work – one actor on form isn't enough. No problems like that here though because both Debra Baker as Anita and Frank C. Keogh as Davey are in compelling form. You can sense the huge amount of effort which has been put into perfecting this piece. For me, the real test of a play has to be believability. If you can't believe in the characters and what they say and do, you can't hope to capture and hold the audience's attention. Ms Baker and Mr Keogh bring these two, very different, characters vividly to life in a way that never causes us to doubt who they are, or their motivation.
Debra Baker's Anita is the kind of East End mum who has a hard exterior with a rather soft, gooey interior. She's a capable woman who is more than able to stand up for herself, but she also has a keen sense of humour to balance the hard edges. Ms Baker's authentic East End accent is perfect for the role, neither too deep nor too high, with almost a melodic quality. Frank Keogh's Davey is neither boy nor man, a teenager struggling with alien emotions that he can't yet control or barely understand. Used to covering-up his sexuality, he literally has to sweat his story out of his inner depths, and when it finally emerges it pours out like a torrent.
Writer Philip Ridley should know something about the East End of London where the play is set since he was born there and has subsequently lived in the area most of his life. And that intimate knowledge comes through powerfully in the vivid descriptions of the locale. Mr Ridley wrote the screenplay for the film 'The Krays' and has won awards for both his screen and stage writing. And the dialogue here is compelling and authentic. My only gripe about the excellent script is that there's a rather well-worn ear joke which is a little past it's sell-by date, even if it did raise a significant giggle among the rest of the audience.
Gary Reid's sensitive and well-paced direction keeps the action rattling along at a tremendous rate, whilst making space for calmer moments as the characters get to know each other. And the highly-charged scenes at the end are brilliantly handled by both director and actors alike.
The exploration of homophobia isn't exactly a unique theme. Sadly, in spite of changes in attitudes in our society, homophobic attacks have not yet been consigned to the dustbin of history. What makes this play different though is that it portrays the aftermath, focusing on those who have to go on living and need to unravel and accept what has happened. There's also great storytelling in Philip Ridley's highly descriptive dialogue. There are times when you can almost see the railway tracks, the snow falling, or blood seeping along the floor of the public toilet. And in the highly emotive closing scenes when Davey is pouring out his story, it's hard not turn away, to wish you were somewhere else, and that's exactly the kind of reaction this excellent play demands. As a consequence, it's hard to describe 'Vincent River' as enjoyable, but it is a very powerful drama, well-executed by a highly professional team and well-worth seeing.