‘Vincent River’ was uncensored.
The director’s notes for ‘Vincent River’ say that the play is “very, very real”, which not only is true but underestimates the impact of the raw ‘realness’ this powerful production possesses. Presented by rising independent theatre company, The Curators, Philip Ridley’s moving one act play about homophobia, love and belonging took to the stage at the company’s new home at the intimate yet dynamic Christ Church in Milton. ‘Vincent River’s’ timely reminder of life’s precious value and the need to uphold each person, no matter their differences or flaws, made for a truly heartfelt and gut wrenching experience.
‘Vincent River’ follows 17-year-old Davey who has been tailing Anita; a mother whose child Vincent was recently murdered. Davey, who is a stranger with seemingly little connection to the deceased, is hungry to hear details about Vincent’s life. But as Anita reminisces on memories of her son and her own childhood, a tragic image of a closeted son well-loved by his mother and a boy desperate to explore his own desires comes to the surface. The play tells us that hiding who we are as human beings, and leading others to believe otherwise, only causes trouble down the line. Refusing to accept people for who they are only leads to reckless ignorance and hurt.
‘Vincent River’ is a gritty yet lyrically written script that draws audiences into the unlikely relationship between two strangers; each searching for the feeling of being loved. As the fourth play by playwright Philip Ridley, it was recently revived at The Park Theatre in London in 2018, and by No Boundaries Theatre in a site specific production in Cardiff also that year.
In The Curators production, lighting design by Bethany Scott helped accentuate the different stories told by Anita and Davey, transporting the audience away from the run down flat and to Anita’s childhood home, or the hospital, or the toilet block where Vincent met his end. These effective choices enabled the production to flow in and out of the primary setting of Anita’s flat and provided fresh and evolving visual aesthetics. A standout moment was Davey’s speech about Vincent’s heartbeat, accompanied by simple, pulsing lights, but no sound effect. This moment was particularly powerful as audiences already had their hearts thumping away in their chests. Despite this powerful moment, some lighting changes were cued without dimming or ‘fading in’ and were particularly jarring, drawing attention away from the tension on stage.
Amanda McErlean and Michael Beh’s sound design perfectly captured the rough, working class East London setting, with punk rock sounds and grungy vocals. While not intentional, the nearby trains in Brisbane were a nice touch, adding to the rundown atmosphere. Classical music and the ‘Late Lament Prologue’ helped audiences understand Vincent’s character and three dimensionalised the others, showing they were more than just angst, heavy accents and leather jackets.
Eye-catching set design by Michael Beh transformed the hall into a musty flat, with old looking carpets that lined the floors, an armchair you might find at Lifeline, a cracked sink with the S-bend exposed, and unpacked boxes clustered around the space. The tapestries on either side of the stage were the primary focus, with rough, graffiti style drawings, and some of the designs spreading onto the set pieces as well with lines of spray paint drawn here and there. Anita’s disorder and turmoil surrounding her son’s death was personified within the set and a reminder of Vincent’s passion for art was spatted throughout the room .
Michael Beh’s direction was a masterclass in staging and characterisation. With great attention to detail, the performance was rich and full: dust clouds erupting from the armchair; props (papers, photos, groceries, cups) strewn around the stage at different moments; herbal cigarettes aplenty; characters changing clothes and utilising the space by sitting on the floor, then on the chair, then over to the sink. Audiences were taken on a journey that was fulfilling and satisfying, seeing how the flat became messier as more memories were discussed.
As a two person show, the dynamics between Anita and Davey, played by Amanda McErlean and Patrick Shearer respectively, were well established and audiences saw their relationship range from accusatory to playful, to standoffish and even flirtatious. Standout moments included towards the end of the play when Davey ‘led’ Anita through his story of how he found Vincent’s body, Anita ‘seeing’ what Davey was recalling, and the rising foreboding that was almost unbearable. Anita and Davey encountered a furiously sexual moment on the settee, which moved the relationship from two strangers struggling to come to terms with their grief, to two strangers desperate to care for and attach themselves to another person.
Beh’s direction took the complex, emotional relationship between the two to a higher, heart warming (and breaking) level. As much as the relationship between the two was believable, the time jump from tense beginning to more comfortable, friendly middle, demonstrated by a musical transition, was not as clear as it could have been. The progression and change in relationship felt missing, with Davey suddenly making sly banter with Anita and her accepting the drastic shift in their relational connection.
Presented ‘traverse’ style, where audiences sat on either side of the action, ‘Vincent River’ was immensely enjoyable and audiences could see the actors up close. McErlean as the grieving, sharp tongued Anita, often stole the spotlight with her energetic, larger than life portrayal of a mother who hides behind dark humour and defends her memory of Vincent. Her love for son and the pain of having lost someone who meant the world to her shone through her nuanced characterisation.
As young Davey, Shearer showcased his subtlety in hiding his character’s true motivations, making for an engrossing, authentic performance that had the audience leaning into his every word, eager to hear more. Shearer’s broody moodiness also provided a welcome contrast to McErlean, and amplified the two character’s contrasting personalities.
As a highly anticipated Brisbane theatrical event for 2020, ‘Vincent River’ pulls out all the stops, and then some. Rich direction, powerful performances, and visually engaging stage designs speak directly to our hearts – that to love and to be loved is something we should not abuse. With ‘Vincent River’, The Curator’s have certainly proved independent theatre is strong and powerful, and the troupe have cemented themselves as a leading Brisbane group.
‘Vincent River’ performs until Saturday, 31 October 2020 at Christ Church, Milton. For more information visit The Curators website.
Photos by Naz Mulla Photography.