Sunday, 6 February 2011

Review: Vernon God Little (Young Vic)

Following its highly successful staging in 2007, Rufus Norris and Tanya Ronder’s adaptation of DBC Pierre’s novel Vernon God Little is back at the Young Vic in a recast and updated version, until March 5th. The production looks more than likely to repeat its previous success, if the wildly enthusiastic response of last Tuesday night’s audience was anything to go by. The story of the aftermath of a Texas High School shooting, focusing on the 15-year-old friend of the culprit of the massacre, who finds himself under suspicion, the adaptation embraces the dark humour of Pierre’s text, and gives the novel a bold, stylised and imaginative theatrical treatment.

It must be said that as a satire on various easy-target American madnesses - materialism, media circuses, criminals as celebs, trials as showbiz spectacles - Vernon God Little is pretty obvious, familiar and crude. There’s little depth - and next to no affection - to the portrait of small-town Texas life that the play constructs; the characterisation frequently crosses the fine line between archetype and stereotype, and a good deal of the (many) protagonists aren’t drawn in more than one dimension: they’re absurdist cartoons. But Norris’s supple and inventive staging generates interest and excitement throughout, and, at its best, the piece achieves something of the mixture of brashness, lyricism and oddity of a Sam Shepard play. There are well-staged musical interludes (with airings for everything from “Crazy” to "Galveston" to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”); a set, by Ian MacNeil, that morphs and transforms itself to evoke interior and exterior spaces with fluidity and ease; and several jaw-dropping set-pieces, not least a startling trial scene that’s equal parts disturbing and hilarious. And amidst the coarseness and scatology there are sudden swerves into tenderness here that take the viewer by surprise.

Some of the performers transcend caricature, too - or else embrace it so wholeheartedly that their interpretation achieves its own kind of truth. Clare Burt is both exasperating and terribly touching as Vernon’s mother; Peter De Jersey brings a marvellous full-throttle vindictiveness to his role as her seducer and Vernon’s betrayer; and Lily James gives bite and substance to her dual roles as two contrasting American-girl archetypes. On the sidelines there’s vivid work from Johnnie Fiori in several roles: her stupendous vocalising as the Judge in the trial scene brings the house down every time. And as Vernon, Joseph Drake makes a great professional debut here, delivering an empathetic and engaging performance that’s the production’s beating heart.

I’m not sure that Vernon God Little is really saying anything especially insightful or profound; indeed, a little late death-row philosophising becomes tedious in the extreme. And I think that the very cosy ending is a mistake: it makes the piece seem trivial. But, despite these complaints, Norris and his team produce a stirring theatrical experience here that does at least prove one thing conclusively: there are few plays that don’t benefit from the inclusion of a line-dancing sequence.

Further information here.


  1. Darn it, you aced my review completely. That final paragraph nails it totally, even down to the last point!! Hehe.

  2. Enjoyed it more than you did, but agreed on the caricature issue. It's stayed with me too; I've found myself thinking about the production quite a bit over the past week.

    And yes, more line-dancing on the London stage this year, please!