“This is the first time we’ve had a high school massacre in Monteiro”
The first of what will now be three revivals of their own productions in 2011, Vernon God Little returns to the Young Vic having launched Colin Morgan (more familiar as BBC1’s Merlin these days) in his debut role whilst still at drama school. This time, it is Joseph Drake who takes on the title role, fresh out of the Bristol Old Vic theatre school. This is a review of the preview performance on Tuesday 1st February.
Vernon God Little is an adaptation by Tanya Ronder of DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize-winning novel, telling the story of Vernon Gregory Little, a fifteen year old boy trapped deep in small-town Texas. When his best friend snaps and carries out a school shooting leaving sixteen dead, the rapacious television media coverage encourages the public in the search for someone to blame and their gaze lands on Vernon. Things then worse for him as opportunistic people seize their own chances for a glory at his expense and then they get a whole lot worse.
Full of country & western music, line dancing, buckets of fried chicken, the southern US atmosphere is evoked wonderfully here in all its oppressive horror for Joseph Drake’s Vernon, a gawky teenager completely out of place in Martirio, Texas and permanently bemused as he is swept along by a seemingly unstoppable chain of terrible events. He has an easy manner about him, dealt well with the comedy and constant flurry of activity around him: an accomplished performance.
And around him, the cast manage to portray a huge number of characters: Lily James (following on from a nice turn in the Guildhall’s The Last Five Years) is brilliantly sparky as the two young women in Vernon’s life, Penny Layden’s dopey deputy and Daniel Cerqueira’s gruff death-row prisoner also stood out amongst their myriad roles and Johnnie Fiori gets to stretch her mightily impressive pipes with a whole lotta fantastic belting. Clare Burt plays the part of Vernon’s materialistic trailer-trash mom well, falling all too easily into the arms of the oleaginous (and tight-buttocked) Peter de Jersey who is wonderfully malevolent.
However, given the number of characters, it means that few of them are allowed to rise above basic caricature in their portrayals. In some respects, I suppose this isn’t the end of the world as it does allow for an extremely effective sense of atmosphere to be built up especially with the vibrant pulse of music throughout emphasising the crazy world that swirls around Vernon and threatens to swallow him up.
But it was all just so much and yet amounting to too little of substance and though it was often ingenious and occasionally really quite humourous, I was not a fan of the design. Making much use of things on wheels, Ian MacNeil has managed to create a highly versatile set of MDF walls (which revolve), boxes (a bar switches into a truck), sofas (that turn into vehicles) and a hanging ceiling which becomes a gaudy courtroom: all quite clever but off-puttingly distracting, there is just too much of it.
The second half very nearly won me over though. The escape and travel through Mexico is winningly done with a beautiful shift of tone into a temporary calmer life whilst the ensuing courtroom scene pulls us back into dizzyingly full-throttle inventive insanity and the following scenes of painful too-late revelation and its consequences connected with me emotionally for the only time in the play. But there is still more to come, shattering this mood and by the time the mawkish finale arrived, I was more than ready to leave.
It is engagingly performed by all, and Drake really is impressive in the central role, but I couldn’t quite see what the point of the play was. Indeed I ended up questioning the legitimacy of some of the points being made: as an indictment of a materialistic, fame-obsessed society, it relies too much on caricatured stereotypes to truly convince, not helped by the slightly patronising notion that life in Mexico is better (we’re poor but we have women and tequila…). The hyper-real tone kept me detached from any substantial emotional engagement, the ending undid a lot of the work and as the play failed to pull me into its world, it really made its length felt.
I can’t say that I particularly disliked Vernon God Little, indeed there are moments of real theatrical ingenuity in the production but these feel down to Norris’ vision rather than the play. But with its somewhat disarming approach I have to say it is one that I suspect I admired rather than truly liked, even if the majority of the audience tended to the latter.