“Vincent River” ends with a horrified mother’s primal scream, though by that point the audience is more likely to be stifling a yawn. Depicting a cat-and-mouse game of sorts between a middle-aged East End seamstress and a sexually confused teenage boy, Philip Ridley’s one-act amounts to so much foreplay building up to a long — and agonized — confessional from its male lead. As 17-year-old Davey (William Mannering) recounts the terrible truth of the eponymous Vincent River’s death in a public toilet at the hand of homophobes, Vincent’s mother Anita (Julie Legrand) listens, eyes widening, sucking in her gut. The moment should send us reeling from the theater, but the conclusion of Matthew Lloyd’s production prompts relief and not a few raised eyebrows: Having sat through over an hour of implausible padding, the audience cannot be expected to respond just because the best shock tactic has been saved for last.
The problem, of course, is hardly unique to this play; many is the script that revels for dramatic purposes — cf. Neil LaBute’s “Bash” — in what it finds morally repellent. Nevertheless, in “Vincent River,” very little beyond that final chronicle of bigotry and loss carries much weight. As a result, the ending is vaguely pornographic in that it asks theatergoers to feast on the very same orgy of sensationalism by which they are undoubtedly — and, in theatrical terms, spuriously — going to be appalled.
For much of its brief length, the play comes across as a minor addition to Britain’s so-called new brutalist genre, complete with a mantra — “nothing matters” — that Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Kane and others have implicitly (and, sometimes, directly) invoked. Davey is a pale, jittery lad who has been shadowing Anita for some months when she takes him into her shabby new flat in Dalston, East London, following the firebombing of her previous one. She questions him about his girlfriend and calls him a “schoolboy,” neither of which goes down well (nor does her use of his full name, David). While Anita acts the entertainer and the flirt, Davey starts by shrinking inside his black suit, much of which will eventually be shed to allow him to vault about the set.
The characters trade notes on such matters as mothers — Davey reports on two — and erstwhile icons (there’s a reason, we learn, why Davey has heard of Betty Grable but not Bette Davis); they end up sharing reminiscences of Vince, the boy whose grim fate by an abandoned railway station his mother has spent all too much time imagining again and again in her mind. It’s Davey’s brutal function to set Anita straight, as it were, about the facts even as he purges himself in the process: The exorcism is as inevitable as it is, sadly, inert.
To the extent that “Vincent River” is about a parent being forced to see, it could be said to possess an innate and time-honored intensity that goes untapped here.
Liz Ascroft’s design — the sloping sides of the set-framing streaked windows and peeling paint — is gently stylized, as if to forestall expectations of a naturalistic evening spent around the kitchen sink.
But Ridley, screenwriter of the 1990 film “The Krays” and a Hampstead semi-regular, has done far better work at this theater in the past (his play “The Fastest Clock in the Universe” starred a then-unknown Jude Law). Ridley is at his weakest when most florid: Davey suddenly sprouting wings, for instance, as he blossoms from timid, shy teen into a whirling dervish with a secret.
A different cast might honor the grimly ineluctable mating dance of a text that, at one point, forces a gin-soaked Anita into a version of her battered son — two strangers turned semi-lovers amid the most somber of circumstances. Legrand is, unfortunately, too shrill and grand by half for a part with which an actress like Linda Bassett (“East Is East”) might really let rip.
An alum of “Arcadia” and the English tour of “Master Class,” she seems to be embellishing Anita, not inhabiting her, with the result that the character’s swings in and out of coyness are inseparable from the performer’s. An energetic Mannering, in turn, certainly works hard, his slightly raw voice testifying to the stress the role itself must impose. But try though he might, he just doesn’t convey the compulsive power that he — and the play as a whole — must transmit if “Vincent River” is to keep an audience from mentally drifting upstream.