If the word “mudlarks” makes you think of perky young Cockney lads gleefully scavenging the banks of the Thames in a fashion closer to Oliver! than the grim realities which Dickens truly portrayed, then the first full-length play by Vickie Donoghue, premiered at the HighTide Festival, will jerk you out of any such fantasy. We are down-river from London, on what the locals ironically call “the beach”. This one is certainly washed by each tide, but these waves carry in and out only the detritus of 21st century society.
Part of this debris are Wayne (Mike Noble) and Charlie (James Marchant). They’re teenagers with a non-existent home-life and a not altogether successful street-life. They’re there, as we discover, because they are being chased by the police and the brothers of Charlie’s girl-friend –the former because of a prank which has developed into a tragedy, the latter out for revenge for an different act of violence.
It’s all remarkably assured in the writing, the production and the acting. Noble gives a marvellous performance as the lad whose family has given up on him (and his younger brother), projecting a kind of sullied innocence which is completely credible. We are left more to ourselves to deduce just why Charlie is as nasty as he is, but again this is a very fine characterisation which calls for our understanding as well as instinctive wariness, even dislike.
Then they’re joined by their friend Jake (Scott Hazell). He is in many ways the most tragic figure of the three: someone who could have taken himself out of the rut and into some sort of brighter future, someone with imagination – there’s a superb sequence in which he imagines taking Wayne on a boat trip into the heart of London – possibly even with ambition, but without the necessary constructive will-power. Again, it’s a rounded, fully realised portrait of a person, not just a hoodie type.
Director Will Wrightson and designer Amy Jane Cook take us as well as the cast on a journey which is claustrophobic and sinister, as it should be. Joshua Carr’s lighting evokes the murk and miasma of the mudflats perfectly, while the creaks and footfalls overhead, the distant police whistles and ambulance siren blasts, the slurpy lap of the incoming tide of Richard Hammarton’s soundscape all percolate the dimness to create the tension which keeps us fully focussed from beginning to end.