Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Vincent River

Philip Ridley
Yet Another Carnival and Hope Mill Theatre
Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
27 February 2018 to 24 March 2018

It is reported that the parents of rock star Freddie Mercury only became aware that their son was gay after he had passed away. The inability to know or understand other people, or even ourselves, is a key theme in Philip Ridley’s bleak drama Vincent River. For its regional premiere the action in the play has been relocated from the East End of London to Manchester, which is about the only part of the production which does not work to full effect. The lengthy list of locations feels like trying that bit too hard for authenticity and becomes distracting.

Vincent River was a gay man murdered in a hate crime. His mother, Anita (Joyce Branagh), was unaware of her son’s sexuality and struggles to come to terms with the revelation. The hostile reaction of Anita’s neighbours forces her to move, and she confronts Davey (Dominic Holmes) who has been following her and demands an explanation. The answer is shocking: Davey discovered Vincent’s body and is so desperate to exorcise the memory that he asks Anita for details of her son’s life.

Anita is the sort of parent who goes overboard and, when invited to make costume wings for her son’s nativity play, produces a pair made out of silk with real feathers. There is the sense that Anita does not understand that her love for Vincent was so oppressive that he felt he could not confide in her about his sexuality because he feared how she would react. Although Anita, a single mother whose child was fathered by a married man, has been judged harshly by others, the experience has not made her sympathetic. Anita’s actions – being repulsed by her son’s pornography – suggest she may well be homophobic. One can appreciate that her son might have been reluctant to confide in someone who makes disparaging remarks about the ethnicity of her neighbours.

Anita is a finely judged performance by Joyce Branagh, moving from an initial defensive, brittle character to draw out the deep hurt and vulnerability under the hardened surface and make the audience care about someone who is not always easy to like. Branagh’s intense but tightly controlled performance suggests someone trying to come to terms with concepts that she finds hard to comprehend. Director John Young shows the thawing of relations between the characters as their moving closer physically is reflected in a growing emotional bond between the two.

The re-creation of the discovery of Vincent’s body is horrifying, with Dan Steele’s subtle sound designs setting a disorienting atmosphere. It must be acknowledged, however, that with a storm raging outside the theatre it was sometimes hard to tell the sounds produced by nature from those generated by technology.

The revelation towards the end of the play is genuinely shocking, made all the more so by a stunning performance from Dominic Holmes. Holmes’s development from a surly, taciturn character into a seductive, manipulative predator is the highlight of the play. It ought to strain credibility, but Holmes makes it work by suggesting that, unlike Anita who does not really understand herself, Davey is fully aware of why he behaves as he does, which makes the character all the more disturbing. The sense of guilt that torments Davey adds to the realism of the character.

A powerful story, high production values and dynamic performances make Vincent River a play that demands to be seen.

Reviewer: David Cunningham