Vernon God Little Review 2007

  • Date:
    Tuesday, May 8, 2007
    Review by:
    Peter Brown

    With a nom-de-plume like DBC Pierre (the 'DBC' bit apparently standing for 'Dirty But Clean') you might think it unlikely that someone would win a prestigious Man Booker Prize. But that's exactly what Pierre (real name Peter Warren Finlay) managed to achieve with his debut novel 'Vernon God Little', published in 2003. Pierre is reported to have said that his £50,000 Man Booker prize would go one third the way to paying off the debts he accumulated through his drugs habit. To say the least, he seems to have had a colourful and chequered past.

    'Vernon God Little', a story of teenage angst and misery - where almost the entire world is seemingly against one - is taken up here by the Young Vic in a pacey and inventive production, adapted by Tanya Ronder and directed by Rufus Norris. Judging by the reception from the enthusiastic first night audience, this stage version of Pierre's work is likely to rouse considerable interest, more than a little controversy and, possibly, even a cult following. In the view of at least one of my colleagues, it's destined for even bigger and better things.

    Fifteen year old Vernon is already in something of a pickle when we discover him being questioned by the police after a Columbine-style shooting at his Texas high school. The local sheriff thinks that Vernon might be implicated in the horrendous crime perpetrated by his friend Jesus (aka the 'Drug-crazed Mexican psycho boy'). The judge, however, releases Vernon on bail to be put under the spotlight of psychiatric analysis. But Vernon and his family are also subjected to the scrutiny of both their 'trailer trash' neighbours and the public at large, thanks to the merciless attention of a slimy and unscrupulous TV reporter, who will stop at nothing, and I mean 'nothing' to get his story.

    Ian MacNeil's bleak and down-at-heal set defines a materially impoverished community where life is lived on the financial edge, and where the ultimate desire is a new refrigerator. In MacNeil's economic design, chairs and sofas become cars, trap doors become front doors, and phones (complete with ludicrously enormous chords) appear from buckets designed for take-away chicken.

    Newcomer Colin Morgan (in his debut role) energetically portrays the depression and frustration of adolescence in his characterisation of Vernon. Morgan's performance is acutely observed and never betrayed a single hint of first night nerves given the glamour of the occasion and the exhausting requirements of the role – he's on-stage for nigh-on the duration. In one scene in his bedroom, Morgan perfectly captured what could have been a scene from my own teenage years. Writhing in embarrassing, attention-seeking moodiness, it was an uncanny snapshot of jumbled adolescent emotions dosed with rampant hormones. Subsequently, Morgan proceeds to illustrate a transition that describes the growing-up process and the ultimate resolution in 'finding oneself'.

    Vernon's Mom, well played by Joanna Scanlan, is a sex-starved housewife whose husband has mysteriously died ... well, his body has never been discovered. When her TV news reporter boyfriend (actually a TV repairman) has left, Scanlan writhes hilariously on the floor whimpering for sympathy from her son.

    There's a riot of other characters in this jaunty, slightly manic piece, many of whom launch into songs such as 'Rhinestone Cowboy' at the drop of a (cowboy) hat. Sheriff Pokorney (Nathan Osgood) has more than a penchant for violence, and there's a psychiatrist with an unhealthy obsession with rectal examinations, and a character whose sexual inclinations lean towards amputees. Vernon's Mexican lawyer is almost totally incomprehensible, but rightly spots the fact that Vernon's salvation lies in his stools. Most of the company double-up in different roles, and the overall impression is of a cast enjoying themselves to the full, thanks to supportive and innovative direction from Rufus Norris.

    In the end, 'Vernon God Little' turns out to be more a commentary on growing up, rather than what a Man Booker Prize judge said was a "coruscating black comedy reflecting our alarm but also our fascination with America". However, it could also be read as a sociological comment on the failure of America to 'grow up'.

    I suspect that both critical and public opinion will be split about 'Vernon God Little', possibly (and rather predictably) along generational lines. Whatever the outcome, this comedy satire of life in modern-day America and the trials of coping with the hormonal rush of adolescence will justifiably cause a stir. Though there are times when it seems to stall a little or get bogged-down (for example in the court room scene) there's more than enough in the characterisations, songs and the zany plot to make it intriguingly novel and quirkily engaging.


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