Vernon God Little
Young Vic Theatre January-March 2011
I didn't much like Tanya Ronder's adaptation of DBC Pierre's novel when it premiered at the Young Vic in 2007. But this revised text and new production by Rufus Norris are a big improvement.
The flaws that remain are largely those of the source novel, and for much of its length this new version is a naughtily enjoyable black comedy.
Pierre's novel is a scattershot satire of all things American, using as its core a hapless Texas teenager wrongly accused of one of America's regularly scheduled high school massacres.
He quickly gets caught up in a media storm driven by an ambitious and unscrupulous reporter and, almost in passing, encounters a corrupt court, corrupt preacher, corrupt border guard, corrupt showgirl, corrupt prison system and some nice Mexicans.
Ronder's adaptation and Norris's direction are at their best when they keep their eye on the boy and play down the social satire, letting his misadventure have the feel of a nightmarish Alice in Wonderland.
Chairs, sofas and supermarket carts turn into automobiles, thanks to Ian MacNeil's clever design, allowing one scene to flow fluidly into another as in dreams, while a revival meeting choir starts line dancing to their hymns and a courtroom becomes the stage for lawyers with duelling guitars.
There is in fact a lot of music in the production, ranging from the haunting ballads of the ghost of the boy who really did the shoot-em-up to a string of ironically juxtaposed country music standards.
Unfortunately, every time the production pauses to look at Pierre's satirical targets or give voice to his philosophising, the energy level drops dangerously - most noticeably in a jailhouse discussion of God that, although heavily edited and much improved since the 2007 version, still stops the play dead in its tracks.
In general, interest, energy and theatrical imagination flag significantly in the last half-hour. Instead of spiralling into Wonderlandish mania, the courtroom scene just meanders into incoherence, the final media satire (a TV show in which viewers vote on which convict should be executed) goes by almost unnoticed, and the ending, though clearer than it was in 2007, is still a whimper rather than a bang.
Joseph Drake, in his first professional performance, succeeds in holding the stage and our sympathy as the hero, by wisely playing him as the passive observer of his own adventure.
Peter De Jersey is given somewhat less to do as the reporter-villain than his 2007 predecessor, and thus too often seems to be wandering in from some other play.
With most of the rest of the cast playing four or five roles each, Lily James registers as, among others, a nice girl and a nasty one, and Nathan Osgood as a string of very different figures.
Click here for our review of the 2007 production
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Review of Vernon God Little - Young Vic Theatre 2011