views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Vernon God Little
The Space
28th March 2015

★★★☆☆

Nathan Armarkwei and Callum McGowan as Jesus and Vernon

Photography © Vincent Rowley

After his best friend Jesus (Nathan Armarkwei) kills himself and most of their classmates, Vernon (Callum McGowan) is suspected by the Deputy (Milli Proust) and all the other good people of small Texan town Martirio as an accessory to murder. Not only does he have to deal with the seriousness of these allegations and the sudden deep personal loss, his father is missing presumed dead, his mum Doris (Stacey Evans) is openly having a fling with a stranger, family friend Pam (Laura Hyde) is determined to save him through stuffing his face with chicken and his IBS is unsurprisingly flaring up, making everyday life somewhat of an ordeal. Oh, and there's the usual teenage angst: starting to fool around with pretty girls and whatnot. Many 15-year-olds feel like Fate is out to get them, but in Vernon's case, he might actually be right. Never mind Chris, Everybody Hates Vernon.

It's one heck of a complicated plot that gets increasingly tangled, with the line between imagination and reality frequently blurred. As it gets more and more ridiculous, it becomes clear that DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little, as adapted for the stage by Tanya Ronder, is turning into a dystopian America, playing on on our willingness to suspend belief if it happens on the other side of the Atlantic. The story starts with a massacre chillingly reminiscent of the Columbine tragedy: before Jesus pulls the trigger, he warns off one friendly face - here, Vernon. There's a media storm created by everyone's desire to be famous, culminating in a mockery of a courtroom trial and televised Death Row proceedings compete with a phone-in voting process. It seems like a horrific vision of an alternate future America, but honestly? We're guilty of the same dark tastes on this side of the pond too. Take Big Brother, I'm a Celebrity, even Jeremy Kyle - as long as it's happening to someone else, that's entertainment.

Director Katherine Timms and movement director Hayley Adams draw on their shared experience of working on Christopher Isherwood bioplay Berlin to navigate a busy, complex storyline with plenty of scene changes and shifts in tone. Adams' movement helps with the transitioning, at times surreal, at others peacefully dream-like. When Vernon is accidentally taken for a flight risk, a supermarket trolley, a wheeled shopping bag and a child's tiny toy cat become a high-speed car chase, with the ensemble twisting into roads and frantically darting around the stage. And during Vernon's later actual escape attempt, the ensemble create a bus which seems to float away part by part as the troubled youngster makes a break for Mexico.

This is all bolstered by the exceptional music. One of the strongest elements to the production is undoubtedly the wonderful arrangements and new compositions by musical director Odinn Orn Hilmarsson, who first came on our radar for his atmospheric work on The Grand Guignol. It seems every member of the ensemble can sing and play guitar, with Hilmarsson making full use of the talent on offer. Gorgeous harmonies at times create humour but mainly establish the ethereal switches in location.

The ensemble of Vernon God Little

Photography © Vincent Rowley

The cast all take on a number of roles, some of which are fairly limiting. As Lally, Bart Edwards is believably sleazy, manipulating all those around him with ease and lying his way to local fame. Charlie Haskins isn't as lucky with his parts and as, Vernon's attorney and psychiatrist, he has some dodgy comedy accents to work with, rather than any depth. Hyde is a well-meaning interference as Pam, but as Lally's mother, again, she's restrained by a deliberately dodgy accent. The Texan vocals are largely passable, but when the cast ham it up with a spot of fake Mexican it cheapens the overall finish and takes away from the impact of Vernon's thoroughly messed-up life. If you don't feel anything else for him, you will at least feel pity: he becomes trapped in circumstance with everything spiralling dangerously out of control despite his best efforts to fix things. Fame-hungry Taylor (Lauren Harvey) is difficult to like, but quasi-feral Ella (Elinor Machen Fortune) with her dirty white dress and willingness to show any passer-by her "south pole" and "north pole" elicits the same sympathy as Vernon. She's just a kid, and kismet has really messed up her chances of doing anything with her life.

There are a few difficulties with projection, with some song lyrics occasionally lost, and although Lasalle (Chin Nywenwe) delivers a knock-out speech, part of his build up to this is swallowed. You could argue it's to do with the layout of the venue - it's in thrust, and there will be times when an actor is performing in the opposite direction to you - but I don't think that fully explains it. Speaking of missing things, there are a few holes in the plot however these can be explained away if you believe what's happening is in Vernon's head rather than for real, and Timms does leave us unsure as to how satisfying we should really find the piece's conclusion. It's a clever ambiguity.

Vernon God Little is fascinating because there's so much going on but, equally, the sheer amount of action prevents you from dwelling on any one character and relating to their individual story. The key protagonists are Vernon and his deceased friend yet I'd like to unravel most of the supporting characters too. We dismiss Doris as trailer trash who doesn't give a damn about her son but we're given a brief insight into what she's dealing with when she reveals the full extent of her financial woes to her son. We know she's effectively a lonely widow but there's more background there that I'd like to tease out. Or may she does genuinely just care about her new fridge, who knows? Trouble is, at 140 minutes long, the play is already pushing the limits of standard Off-West End running times, and we just can't delve too deeply into the mindset of the larger ensemble. And there's a lot of scenes, but none warrant cutting.

This is is a thoroughly ambitious production which, although too fast-paced for some, has a clear narrative and tackles some big themes with gusto. The script itself is fairly challenging but the company do a decent job of adapting it into the intimate venue of The Space. Fledging theatre company Burn Bright have definitely sparked our interest.

Vernon God Little opened on 24th March and runs until 11th April 2015 at The Space.

Nearest tube station: Mudchute (DLR)



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