Three boys gather on the muddy bank of the Thames, two celebrating the actions of their night out, one horror-stricken and ashamed. The next 80 minutes reveal the truth about their evening as well as the awful brutality of their hopeless lives out East, where the world beyond the Thames Barrier is a fantasy and the sucking, sinking mud of the riverbank invades everything.
This intense, absorbing three-hander is a strenuous experience for both audience and actors. Vicki Donoghue's dialogue pulls no punches: it is often a stream of invective, littered with expletives, insults and aggression, creating a kind of mesmeric rhythm. Though it would be all too easy (and often desirable) to look away and blank it out, it is impossible – it's too real, too raw, too cruel. The performances are visceral and impassioned, and the ingenious use of real mud in the set design shows the characters getting dirtier and dirtier, more and more embroiled in their circumstances, without seeming to care or even notice.
The characters, though shocking, create genuine empathy. Poor, hopeless Wayne (Mike Noble) is endlessly bullied by brutish Charlie (James Marchant), and yet Charlie steals food for Wayne's table and money for his electric meter. It's a world in which all the rules have been shifted: doing the right thing means stopping your friend from starving, not living by the law.
Scott Hazel plays Jake, whose attempt to escape through education gets him nowhere, pulled back time and again by friends with no ambition or understanding. The tragedy seems to be that for those trapped on the mud, like quicksand, the harder you struggle, the quicker you go down.
The traverse staging means that the true backdrop to the play is the tense and stricken faces of the audience opposite, emphasising how painfully real, current and social it all is. We have trapped these boys in their tiny world with the tide coming in, stuck between currents that will suck them under and the solid brick wall of a lawful society in which they can never function.
This is a brave and vital piece, unashamedly confrontational and not afraid to use the power of theatre to make us look when otherwise we might turn our heads.