Vernon God Little, Young Vic, London
Comedy of terrors wins its spurs
Wednesday 09 February 2011
When this very clever theatrical version by Tanya Ronder of DBC Pierre's Booker Prize-winning novel Vernon God Little had its world premiere at the Young Vic back in 2007, I wrote that "it makes for an evening that is (if you'll excuse my Texan) banjo-pluckin', lardbutt-fingerin', and paradigm-shiftin' good". The second of those adjectives registered the pongy way both play and novel poke the orifices, personal and social – including at one point the hero's grandmother's back passage.
Watching Rufus Norris's production for a second time in this brilliantly funny revival, I'll admit that the stage adaptation appeals to my sense of humour more than does the novel. True, apart from periodic confiding riffs to the audience, you lose a lot of the Holden-Caulfield-on-Ritalin inner voice of our titular protagonist, the 17-year-old whose flea-bitten Texan town turns on him when his best friend massacres 16 of their high-school mates and then tops himself. But in rich compensation, the con men, pervy psychiatrists, bent cops, dodgy ministers, white trash nymphos et al are freed to become a garish, disgracefully amusing gallery of independent life.
There is something of Robert Altman and Nashville in the DNA of Vernon God Little as drama. Altman's creative juices would have been stirred by the section where the fate of prisoners on death row is decided by vote on a brightly audience-flattering TV phone-in programme. But he would not have directed the material better than Norris. The latter and designer Ian MacNeil have created a design concept that pulls you into this shambolic, tacky world with terrific wit and flair. Shopping trolleys, sofas, and office chairs become cars in a trice by the sudden addition of a steering wheel. The cast have to propel themselves about by madly pushing with their feet in panicky little steps. It creates just the right jagged, jumpy sense of controlled chaos. And it's not all just minimalist plywood walls either. When Vernon is lured into a honey trap by a venal blonde minx, a huge wall of glittering streamers symbolises his deluded bliss. This spectacularly collapses to be succeeded by an enormous courtroom of golden strings – like a spuriously celestial mirage composed of stripper's tassels.
Full of country-and-western songs, line dancing, and testifying to Jesus, the show boasts a panoply of high-definition comic performances. Peter De Jersey radiates insincerity and sexual conceit in his electrifying portrayal of Lally, the ex-TV repairman who dupes his way to media front-man megalomania by exploiting the "grief" of the town. In a debut of extraordinary stamina and accomplishment, Joseph Drake is very winning as Vernon, playing him as a gawky misfit who would like to be Eminem but is perhaps more MOR. Clare Burt beautifully captures the (touching and maddening) susceptibility to bogus blandishments of the damaged mother. She sings hauntingly, as does Luke Brady, as a constant blood-stained revenant in the proceedings.
I have to confess that I find the rather pious moral of the story too precipitately arrived at and a bit trite and sophomoric – but it's forgiven in the joyous blast of the finale. Go.
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