The last time I saw this play was back in 2007. At the last press night, a colleague predicted that the show would be a real winner and go on to bigger and better things. As far as I know, though, there's been no transfer to another West End theatre in the meantime, so it's good to see the show having a second, well-deserved outing at the Young Vic.
Fifteen year old Vernon Little is already in something akin to hot water when we first meet him. He's questioned by the police after a Columbine-style shooting at his Texas high school. Though Vernon wasn't a party to the massacre, he can't convince the local Sheriff that he is entirely innocent and is arraigned before the court, but released on bail pending psychiatric reports. That gets Vernon into even more trouble because he's at the mercy of a paedophile psychiatrist with a penchant for rectal examinations. But other adult forces conspire against Vernon. A TV repair man with a burning desire to be a TV reporter fetches-up to get an exclusive on Vernon's story and ends up framing him for the murder of the sheriff. With no other way out, Vernon takes off for sanctuary in Mexico, where he finds some respite before he's recaptured and taken back for trial in Texas.
'Vernon God Little' was written by DBC Pierre, or Peter Warren Finlay if you prefer his real name. It was Pierre's first novel but nevertheless won the prestigious Man Booker Prize which comes with a cash sum of £50,000. Pierre claimed that these winnings would be enough to pay off only a third of the debts he accumulated to feed his drug addiction. This excellent adaptation is by Tanya Ronder.
As before, Rufus Norris is back at the directorial helm, and still in vibrantly confident mood. This time, the show is almost 30 minutes longer, and it feels a little stretched even if it still zips along at quite a cracking pace. There seem to be more songs than in the previous version, but the other hallmarks of this zany production are still there. Ian MacNeil's design is as sparse and dingy as ever, and the scene changes are fluidly managed thanks to most of the furniture being on casters. Sofas become cars (even sporting headlights at the rear) and shopping trolleys are re-invented as police vehicles.
On the last outing, Vernon was played by newcomer Colin Morgan. This time round it's the turn of Joseph Drake to impress in the role, also making his professional debut. But they are rather different Vernon's. Joseph Drake's Vernon is more resilient and not so shockable, even if the support he expects from the authorities and adults in general is singularly lacking. Still, it's a terrific performance from this young actor and deserves to gain considerable recognition. His Mom is played by Clare Burt who portrays an ineffectual woman who laments that she can't pay her rent, yet longs for some male company and a new refrigerator. There's great support from Johnnie Fiori as family friend Pam, who has a heart as large as her frame and an equally substantial appetite. And Luke Brady is the ghost-like Jesus, perpetrator of the massacre, who accompanies Vernon on his travels and provides some great vocals.
Like last time, we tend to get bogged down somewhat in the second half which is not so funny as the first, and tends towards chaos at times, especially in the final court room scene. The ending is a little sentimental, at least on one level - the message basically being that it's how we treat each other that really counts in life. But there's also another, more important conclusion - it's only when Vernon starts to take responsibility for his own actions and stops relying on others that he gains control over his life and things change for the better.
I don't think there's much in the way of any significant difference between the last version and this new one. I certainly wouldn't like to stick my neck out and say which is better. The best features have all been preserved in this new version, and though it's now a little longer it never seems to drag. All in all, it remains hugely enjoyable, quirky fun, and is highly recommended.
"A helter-skelter portrait of a crazy world in which justice turns into a form of showbusiness...behind the whirling humour lies a belief that, even if we can't believe in God, we should all try a little tenderness in our dealings with others. "
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Often thrillingly funny...needs more emotional substance and an authentic humanity at its centre. "
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Although the show feels a shade too long, it’s no struggle to keep watching, thanks to the bravura energy of the quick-changing company and the hypnotic qualities of youthful vulnerability, inexperience and sly defiance that newcomer Joseph Drake brings to the role of the hapless Vernon. "
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph
"Brilliantly funny revival. "
Paul Taylor for The Independent