views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Dark Vanilla Jungle
The Cockpit
10th August 2016


Publicity photograph for Dark Vanilla Jungle

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

At the Camden Fringe, a late night slot is often reserved for some quite dark material, and Dark Vanilla Jungle certainly lives up to its title. Playwright Philip Ridley is well known for covering some pretty grim topics, and to be honest they don't get much grimmer than the grooming of teenage girls, sexual abuse, psychological manipulation, landmine injuries and death, with references to drugs, prison and strokes thrown in for good measure. I think it's fair to say that this is pretty intense stuff! With such challenging material, you need a really good actress to pull it off and thankfully Lexie Braverman is just that.

Upon entering the theatre, you find Andrea (Braverman) scribbling earnestly in her notebook, with electronic music playing in the background. Unfortunately, when I went the theatre was almost empty (unfairly so, as this is a very strong show) but the vast bare space just added to the atmosphere. As I watched Andrea write, sometimes hurriedly tearing out pages, I felt strangely calm yet unsettled in equal measure.

When the show starts we are greeted by Andrea, who makes it clear that this is going to be a night for confessions. She stares purposefully into the audience’s eyes and starts telling us her story, rapidly skipping backwards and forwards between different episodes. From her mother's singing (which Braverman wonderfully recreates) and the way she dabs away sweat, to trips to McDonald's with her friend: these piecemeal events come together, helping the audience to build a picture of her life. At first things seem pretty normal, although there is the odd unsettling reference made. But then, as the full, horrifying nature of certain events becomes clearer, directors Jerome Davis and Staci Sabarksy ramp up the tension.

There are essentially two key stories in the production, though both are linked through Andrea. The first, which depicts a brutal sexual assault, is storytelling at its best. It feels raw and real, and entirely, terrifyingly believable in how it all came about. When the teenager who just wants to be loved meets a good-looking older man, it doesn't take a genius to predict that this might end badly. And whilst parts of the tale might be somewhat predictable, it is incredibly well written and executed. The second storyline doesn’t quite work as well. In conjunction with the first, it just seems a bit too much, and therefore less believable. Nevertheless, this is only a slight criticism as Ridley's writing does a good job at building up the tension and making the audience care, and Braverman's performance is spot on. I can honestly say that I was gripped throughout.

Braverman's powerful, emotional rendition doesn’t require any support, however lighting designer Matthew E Adelson does deserve a special mention. There is nothing too fancy, which would just detract from such a raw performance anyway, but he cleverly uses the lights to build up the atmosphere and recreate events, like the party Andrea attends in a London tower block. Combined with Braverman's compelling acting, the changing lighting adds an extra layer of intensity and realism to the show.

This is a simply standout production. The audience is invited to play detective, putting together a jigsaw of Andrea's life, piece by piece. It's dynamic, moving, and incredibly intense. You won't be able to look away, as much as you might want to in certain places. While the subject matter is not for everyone, the show does not deserve the empty seats; so if you fancy something a bit dark, get yourself to The Cockpit.

Dark Vanilla Jungle opened on 10th August and runs until 14th August 2016 at the Cockpit, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Marylebone (Bakerloo)

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