A bloody massacre has descended on to small town America. A shooting at the local high school has left 16 dead and, as the media frenzy begins, 15-year-old Vernon Gregory Little finds himself at the centre of the storm.
His best friend carried out the shootings before turning the gun on himself and, without a live perpetrator, the locals are turning their blame on Vernon.
Adapted from DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Vernon God Little returns to the Young Vic following its 2007 run in an updated production. It’s a surreal world as larger than life characters and improbable events collide until near anarchy ensues. Add in a hefty dose of country music and line dancing and it’s clear from the outset this isn’t going to be a traditionally staged play.In many ways it is like watching a stage adaptation of a graphic novel but, despite the surreal nature, with recent events in Arizona, the revival seems incredibly topical and relevant.
As befits the subject this is rapid fire staging, walls, props and furniture wheel on and off stage at an alarming pace, snatches of music permeate the script and some wonderfully observed over the top set pieces add to the whole bizarre set up.Director Rufus Norris sensibly keeps the action fast and furious and, while tipping a knowing nod to the absurd, keeps just the right side of ridicule. Ian MacNeils designs are wonderfully inventive and witty, conjuring up surprise after surprise with clever transformations.
The central role of Vernon is a dream of a role for a young actor and Joseph Drake in his professional début excels. It would be easy to overplay this role but Drake delivers a nicely understated performances that hints at a much darker torment barely simmering behind the outwardly meek and mild exterior. There’s something mixed up about his Vernon, not surprising as we discover his background during the piece, but also a sense of innocence and vulnerability.
Supporting Drake is a strong supporting ensemble, many playing multiple characters in this mad-cap town. Particularly strong are Clare Burts’ Mom, Johnnie Fiori’s powerhouse Pam and Luke Brady as a nicely subtle but vocally impressive spirit of gunman Jesus.
This was a preview performance and so there is some slight tweaking still to be done. Sound balance in some of the musical numbers needs attention as we miss some of the humour in the chosen lyrics while the lighting department need to address a couple of dark spots.
Overall, though, this is an impressive production. What on paper sounds an unworkable mix of musical, dancing, comedy and tragedy translates well. The sheer inventiveness, dark humour and pace thrills and, once you enter into this madcap world, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable ride.