VERNON GOD LITTLE
by DBC Pierre, adapted by Tanya Ronder
Directed by Des Kennedy for Queen’s University, Belfast
Set Design by Stuart Marshall
Costume Design by Una Hickey
Black comedy material doesn’t come much darker than the fallout of a school shooting; in the wake of the horrific massacre in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, the sounds of gunshots in the opening of Vernon God Little are brutal and unsettling. Since winning the Booker Prize in 2003, DBC Pierre’s dark comedy has been adapted at least twice as a theatre piece. Originally for The Citizens Theatre, Glasgow in 2004 by Andrea Hart and this version by Tanya Ronder, originally for the Young Vic, is an ambitious project for Queen’s University second year students. Ronder’s wise-cracking prose takes you inside the head of a Texan teenage anti-hero, who looks on in mordant disbelief as he’s framed as the accomplice to the rampage-massacre of 17 schoolmates by his closest friend Jesus (Daniel Corrigan).
The play resembles a Jerry Springer-style freak show, with its guest list of white-trash, con-men, wannabes, perverts, evangelists and nymphomaniacs clamouring for a few seconds in the spotlight. Full of country-and-western songs, line dancing, and testifying to Jesus, the show hits the ground running and rarely pauses for breath. Underscoring much of the action, filling the stage as required and emptying it too with soulful desolation, is a rock, folk and country soundtrack, performed live, that begins and ends, aptly, with Patsy Cline’s Crazy. Full of restless energy and youthful charisma from start to finish, Aaron Hickland is superb as Vernon, and carries the weight of the production with ease. Fine support comes from Daniel Smith who radiates insincerity and sexual conceit in his exhilarating portrayal of Lally, the ex-TV repairman who dupes his way to media front-man megalomania by exploiting the ‘grief’ of the town. Rhiann Jeffrey plays the over-sized and over-the-top Pam, while Jessica Brien’s Leona is both absurd and hilarious.
Stuart Marshall creates a set that locates the audience in a shambolic, tacky world with terrific wit and flair. Wooden crates become cars in a trice by the sudden addition of a steering wheel. The cast have to propel themselves about by madly pushing with their feet in panicky little steps, creating just the right jagged, jumpy sense of controlled chaos. Musical director, Garth McConaghie’s song selections are excellent too, and the live performances pitch-perfect.
The first half of the show is a riot, pushing the absurdity and black comedy of the story even further with sudden musical outbursts, but after the interval the story’s escalation gets out of hand, which causes some problems with pacing and clarity. Although the production feels a shade too long, the bravura energy of the quick-changing company and the seamless scene changes make it no struggle to keep watching. Vernon God Little is black, bleak and absurd and its message is deliciously unclear: there’s no moral at the end, no sense made of the senseless. The play serves up ‘Big Mac’ portions of biting satire on the ever-increasing power of the scandal-obsessed media and the sordid secrets of humanity that so-called Western civilisation cannot bury. Much of the play will shatter your faith in humanity, but the only thing to do is laugh at its absurdity.