Tanya Ronder’s adaptation of DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize-winning novel played at the Young Vic in 2007. Now it is back in a revised production which exploits Pierre’s black humour to the hilt.
Rude, crude, quirky and unique, director Rufus Norris imparts an explosion of colour, music and fast-talking Texas twang on to the stage of the Young Vic for this tale of a hapless teenager who is accused and convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.
Vernon Gregory Little is a 16-year-old with a bowel problem which makes him have to drop his pants any time, any place. When his good friend Jesus Navarro shoots his high school class dead, before turning the gun on himself, Vernon was otherwise engaged. But that doesn’t stop the sheriff, and soon the whole town, accusing him of being his friend’s accomplice. So begins a kind of coming-of-age tale which takes Vernon from hometown Martirio to Mexico and back.
Vernon God Little is less about a high school shooting and more about the sort of small-town mentalities that see a person assumed guilty until proven innocent. Texas, says Pierre, is a place where everyone is out for themselves, meaning Vernon is betrayed – whether purposely or not – by everyone around him: a narcissistic TV reporter; a fame-hungry bimbo who purports to help him; and even his mother, whose own worries and lack of self-esteem make her so selfish she can’t defend her only son.
Despite the subject matter, this is a highly comic tale, and Norris’s use of song, colour and dance only enhances this. The action is fast-paced – most of all in the first half – and set-changes are integral to the scenes, with furniture moved around by the cast as part of the flow of the piece. The heavily stylised design is effective: a supermarket trolley becomes a police car, a freestanding door frame helps convey location changes, a trap door in the floor has multiple uses. There is even a Mexican car that would have Jeremy Clarkson rubbing his hands in glee.
Though this is a play, music and dance are essential to conjuring the Deep South atmosphere of the piece. Country, blues, gospel and hillbilly numbers animate the action, sung and played live on stage by various cast members. The prosecutor and defence in Vernon’s trial are Stetson-wearing, guitar-playing cowboys; at times the cast break into spontaneous line-dancing; and throughout the play, the ‘ghost’ of Jesus appears next to Vernon, a gunshot wound at his temple, singing softly and strumming his guitar.
The cast of 10 play multiple characters and all have their time to shine. As Vernon, Joseph Drake – taking on the mantel of Colin Morgan in the previous production – portrays a simple, kind-hearted boy whose youth means he doesn’t have the guile to extract himself successfully from his situation. Peter De Jersey relishes being the villain of the piece, ruthless TV reporter Lally, and Lily James is astonishing as both Taylor, the self-obsessed town pin-up who betrays Vernon, and the awkward, heart-wrenching figure of Ella, a young girl who seems to live wild in the woods.
It is always going to be difficult to portray the intricacies and plot development of a novel on stage. Even if the second half is a touch too long, and the trial scene gets a bit confused, on the whole this adaptation keeps the plot moving and the audience’s attention held right to its sweet-as-pecan-pie conclusion.