Review: Vernon God Little

is impressed by TFTV’s production of Tanya Ronder’s adaptation of DBC Pierre’s gritty novel

Rating: ★★★★☆
Venue: Black Box theatre

If you’re searching for something a little different to watch tonight, TFTV Society’s latest production of Vernon God Little comes highly recommended. A refreshing blend of dark humour, country music and small-town mania, Tanya Ronder’s adaptation of DBC Pierre’s gritty novel tells the story of Vernon (played by a sarcastic Oliver Henn), an average teenage boy whose quirky outsider friend Jesus just murdered 17 schoolchildren before shooting himself, leaving Vernon to pick up the fragments of his own shattered life. Featuring drugs, guns, line-dancing and paedophilia, we whiz through Vernon’s small Texan hometown in a frenzy that just about leaves you time to realise the absolute darkness at the heart of this brightly lit, hilariously performed production.

Photo courtesy of TFTV

Photo courtesy of TFTV

As the play opens, we enter into a world of grotesque, semi-caricatured characters and bizarre logic; a TV repairman successfully poses as an acclaimed reporter, the Sheriff seems more determined to prove Vernon gay than get to the truth of the massacre, and a charismatic reanimated Jesus (played by Edward Sager) wanders the stage playing Johnny Cash on his guitar. The two friends find time to hang out, even beyond the grave, in moments which highlight the playful, endearing side to our world-weary teenage protagonist. The chemistry between Sager and Henn as they mesh country music with Snoop Dog style beats (or at least what Vernon would probably like to think his rapping compares to,) supports this reading and helps create a bitter-sweetness as we realise the friend that Vernon has lost. This careful attention to detail allows us to respond with greater emotion to Vernon’s monologues on their friendship, speeches which may otherwise have fallen flat.

Having anticipated a fast-paced, frenetic succession of events from the very start, I was a little disappointed to find the first act initially lacking in momentum. Unfortunately, some lines were muffled or lost and there were a few delayed reactions which destroyed any attempt at pace, and could have probably been avoided with just a little extra polishing. However, the excellent cast soon pulled through and the action built well as it became more fluid. By the time we were treated to an unforgettable ensemble version of Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’, all issues of pace had been long forgotten.

The comically grotesque characters were brought to life with exuberance, each cast member adding their own brilliant subleties to their characters through voice and physicalisation. Particularly notable performances include Anna Thirkettle’s lively Ella Keeter, James Dixon’s schmoozing as a morally bankrupt Lally, and Polly Jordan’s mediations between trivial jargon-spouting teenager and all-out bitch. However, each cast member should be congratulated as there really was very little to criticise about the acting.

During the second half, the action accelarated and grew in absurdity as the plot thickened. A glitzy showdown in a tacky courtroom represents Vernon’s trial, a voting system for which convict is next executed is developed, and representatives of the media literally crawl into the action via a large television screen in a disturbing take on the commercialisation of murder in America. Yet there are also some oddly still and touching scenes as well, especially during a moment in which Vernon’s mother (Alex Baldry) sings to herself as her son speaks his mind about their gruesome family history.

The minimalistic set was perfect for the staging of such spiraling absurdity and instability. Everyday objects were transformed, dismantled and reassembled around the actors in an ever-changing world. A blank sheet provided a backdrop onto which swiveled a still night-time sky, a shimmering tinsel curtain, and harsh colours used in an expressionistic manner during key moments.

It would be a shame to miss this highly entertaining production. Despite the occasional practical staging issues, and the fact that the show would benefit from a little extra rehearsal, this still remains one of the best student productions I have seen all year.

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