There was tension in the air at the press night of Vernon God Little at the Young Vic. After all, DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize-winning novel is all about a student massacre, a subject brought painfully into the limelight after recent events in Virginia. Can Tanya Ronder’s theatrical adaptation of the book provide any answers? Jo Fletcher-Cross was there to find out…
Vernon Gregory Little (Colin Morgan) is a 15 year old boy, living in the small town of Martirio, Texas. His best friend Jesus has just shot dead 16 of their classmates and then killed himself. Unable to account for his whereabouts, and found clutching a bag of extra ammunition, he is now suspected of being an accessory to murder.
The Young Vic’s sprawling stage is used to its full capacity here. Ian MacNeil’s ingenious design has a series of moving walls, doors and battered furniture which are all pushed or pulled about by the actors to create new locations in the dusty, trashy town. A dilapidated old red sofa becomes the front seat of a station wagon with the addition of a steering wheel; a metal frame is the front and then the back door.
This is a community with a lot of problems. Almost before the shootings are over, t-shirts have been printed up – ‘I came to Martirio and all I got was this lousy exit wound’ – and the media, in the shape of the slimy Eulalio Ledesma (Mark Lockyer), has descended to extract every last ounce of controversy and grief it can. Eulalio worms his way into the affections of Vernon’s mother (Joanna Scanlon), trading on her desperate insecurity to get close to the boy. With the perpetrator of the crime dead, the sensation hungry media are looking for a scapegoat, and Vernon fits the bill perfectly.
A series of hideously messed up neighbours and friends process through the house, with only Pam (Lorraine Bruce), Vernon’s aunt, seeming to show any real concern for the boy’s welfare – a concern she expresses through feeding him buckets of fried chicken.
The crackling, skittish tone of the book is rendered surprisingly faithfully. The production takes some unexpected turns, such as the almost constant use of music and song. From a few suggestive guitar chords played by a cousin in the background, to a full-blown line dancing, country singing group number, or a tragic karaoke version of Your Cheating Heart, the music unsettles and sets the tone of this strange, chaotic, psychotic place.
The hallucinogenic quality of Martirio is tempered by the strange beauty of Vernon’s escape to Mexico. A roadside bar becomes an old truck covered in lurid but pretty lights, as his new Mexican buddies, drunk on tequila, take him to the beach. Here the music becomes lovely and almost ethereal, a Spanish love song lulling him to sleep underneath a full moon. Here he is happy, all the confusion and turmoil forgotten for a while – until the snarling media pack catch up with him once more.
Vernon God Little is either a bleak indictment of American culture or a searing satire on how the USA is perceived by outsiders, or perhaps both. Either way, it is an uncomfortable, essential, exciting play, full of surprises, very funny and also desperately sad. Rufus Norris’s daring and resolute direction makes this a bold and audacious production.
Vernon God Little is at the Young Vic until 9 June.