Review: Dark Vanilla Jungle, Soho Theatre

“But then again, there’s a lot of sadness in life. Don’t you think? I do – Where was all this heading? Don’t tell me!”

In a shock development, Philip Ridley’s latest work is a conventional rom-com of a show with a happy ending… As if. It doesn’t even seem credible does it and without fail, Philip Ridley’s Dark Vanilla Jungle exists in the dystopian, fractured worldview of Andrea, a young woman whose desire for love, family and a sense of home crashes hard into an unloving society that sees her exploited and abused with tragic results.

What is different is that it is Ridley’s first monologue for over 20 years and in Gemma Whelan’s hands, it becomes a hugely exhilarating and exhausting experience even just to watch it. The emotional resources she must have to draw on, alongside the technical demands of an intricate, layered 35 page script, result in a sensational performance that strips things back right to raw emotion and impassioned feeling.

Damaged by a disruptive childhood and mercilessly groomed for sex by a gorgeous older man she meets out one night, Andrea’s tale is one of endless mistreatment at the hands of others mostly, but not exclusively, by men. It starts off intense and fierce and desolate but we soon come to see that things are only just beginning to kick off, there’s so much more in this Pandora’s Box of despair that just keeps on spewing forth.

Dark Vanilla Jungle is full of Ridley’s customary poetic imagery, diamonds glitter and orchards sway gently in the breeze as pain and horror wreaks its path through Andrea’s life. But it is not without humour too – her take on depictions of the Nativity is singularly unique and wittily observed, and the way Whelan interacts with the audience has (sometimes) a charming touch to it which draws us right in as listeners, to be spat back out again with considerable venom.

As Andrea descends into the horror of the latter part of the show, deepest in the jungle, it does become almost unbearable, but in the best possible sense. Whelan and Ridley suck the air from the room and leave us on the edge of our seats, scared to look at what might be coming next but utterly unable to resist finding it out. Complex and lyrical, striking and powerful, I highly recommend it.

Running time: 80 minutes (without interval)
Playtext cost: £4
Photo: Camilla Greenwell

Booking until 13th April

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