Last Updated on 24th May 2019
Julian Eaves reviews Philip Ridley’s play Vincent River starring Louise Jameson and Thomas Mahy now playing at Trafalgar Studios.
Philip Ridley is an epic miniaturist. He takes a tiny moment, a precisely focussed event, a single character or a couple of characters doing something inexplicable, strange or thrilling, and mines it for all it’s worth, examining its myriad facets in the searchlights of his inquiring mind, confronting the darkest, most terrifying human impulses, and not resting until he has thrown them open to public inspection and study. I wouldn’t say that I have ever felt emotionally involved with any of his characters – he seems less closely wrapped up with them than to sit over them in coolly detached judgement like that of a Greek tragedian.
For an actor, and for a director working with that actor, he represents a daunting challenge, with hermetically enclosed utterances masking rather than revealing motivations, or virtuosically extended monologues constantly threatening to disrupt the balance and flow of the drama. His plays are like assault courses for even the most gifted practitioners to find their capabilities stretched and taxed. Luckily, in this production of the 20-year old two-hander featuring the meeting of a bereaved mother and a young man who may know something about the death of her son, we get a perfect meeting of minds – and talents.
Louise Jameson gives a star turn in a gift of a part that offers the actress the chance to play an immense range of notes and colours, from stern matriarchal control to screaming maternal despair, from clever East End bitchiness to getting stoned and having a wonderfully inappropriate – and erotic – snog with a boy young enough to be her child. And so much more. It is a magnificent display of the actor’s craft and a sheer delight to see and hear her spin upon a sixpence to catch each fleeting nuance of meaning or shadow of an effect and bring them expertly to our attention, before slipping on with the story.
As her visitor, and source of so much useful and transformative information, Thomas Mahy acquits himself with admirable poise. Beginning with a role that sounds like it’s been written on plywood, he gradually comes more into his own and becomes a fascinatingly complex individual. The script doesn’t quite give him all the psychological justifications he needs to make some of his more radical statements and actions sound plausible. Fortunately, in the brief 80 minutes of the show’s running time, he’s not around long enough for us to have to worry about this for too long.
Meanwhile, Nicolai Hart Hansen’s sympathetically terse set and costume design – combined with Marty Langthorne’s masterful Lighting Design – nudges the play firmly in the direction of the expressionistic (from the very first cue!), while continually flirting with naturalistic matter-of-factness. Everything we see – or hear – has symbolic value. And no-one in this team understands that better than the director.
Robert Chevara brought this play to life some years ago, at The Park, and it’s easy to see why he and producers Danielle Tarento and Stephen M Levy don’t want to let go of it before they have to. He clearly sees that there is so much more to it than the sum of its parts. It is, in Chevara’s vision, a drama that smoothly transcends the limitations of its apparent setting and propels us into a confrontation with the darkest, most terrifying elements of the human psyche, exposing our weakness, our vice, our cruelty, stupidity and vanity, denying any cure or balm, and leaving us ultimately to deal with our own messes ourselves. And he knows exactly how to articulate this frightening spectacle, with impeccable pacing and command of movement and stillness.
There are lessons to be learnt here about how we should live: as individuals, and as a society. It is a sober work, with high-minded ideals at its heart, not a glib desire to divert or entertain. Perfect it may not be, but then who amongst us is?