Friday, March 27, 2015

'Vernon God Little' at The Space, 26th March 2015

DBC Pierre's Booker prize winning novel Vernon God Little was first adapted by Tanya Ronder for Young Vic in 2007. Critically acclaimed, the production was hailed for its humour, ingenious staging, speedy pacing and impressive scope. Now, Ronder's script has been revived as the inaugural production of Burn Bright Theatre. 

Vernon God Little, with nearly 50 characters spread over ten actors, multiple locations, multimedia elements and a narrative that never stays in one place too long, is an impressive ambitious theatrical undertaking. Unfortunately, ambition is about the only positive quality present here.

Our teenage hero, Vernon (Callum McGowan) appears to be the butt of a cosmic joke. After his best friend shoots up their school, suspicion falls on the awkward Vernon, who was caught clutching a bag of ammunition nearby. As a hungry media descends on in the town, our hero becomes a pariah, every aspect of his life sifted through and sensationalised. With a town populated by grotesque caricatures, things snowball towards comic unpleasantness. Soon Vernon's on the run, heading towards Mexico with the authorities in hot pursuit.

This is an basic overview of an extremely convoluted plot. Having neither read the book nor seen the 2007 staging I spent large portions of the show not knowing what the hell was going on. Characters would arrive on stage, yell at each other in random accents and then disappear, sometimes there'd be a musical number, maybe a bit of slapstick and then onto the next thing. 

Not knowing what was going on quickly transitioned into not caring what was going on which itself soon transitioned into a simmering annoyance that I was losing a whole evening to this rubbish. As my arse gently fell into numbness, I endured gales of unconvincing accents, repetitive jokes and scenes that just. would. not. end. Perhaps I'd be a tiny bit more generous if the production at least had brevity on its side, but I felt every one of its painful 150 minutes. Beginning at half seven we don't get out of there until we're nearing half past ten and, considering that The Space Arts Centre is down in the Isle of Dogs, means anyone living North or East probably won't be getting home until nearing midnight.

After an hour and twenty minutes we were granted the small mercy of an interval, during which I seriously contemplated hopping on a bus and getting far, far away. I've never, ever, done this during a play I was reviewing (it's wrong to judge something you've only seen half of), but my god I was tempted. As I retook my seat, despair curled in my gut, sure that I was making a decision I'd regret.

If I didn't know that this script had already been successfully staged I'd probably blame its overambitious scope and confused tone for this production's many problems. Sadly, given that it has, blame must fall on the company. Simply put, Burn Bright Theatre have wildly overestimated their abilities.  I can't fault their ambition, but tackling a show like this as a low budget fringe production proves to be foolishness.

Even given all that there are a couple of performers who emerge mostly untarnished. Callum McGowan's Vernon is probably about as good as it can be, at bare minimum you can empathise with his confusion and annoyance as to what's going on around him. Bart Edwards' slimy would-be investigative reporter is also largely fine thanks to his strong physical performance. Everyone else is mired in overacting, their performances limited by their dodgy Jamaican/Eastern European/Spanish etc accents.

I don't take any particular pleasure in doling out criticism as negative as this, no doubt blood, sweat and tears have gone into making this show happen. But the end result is lumpen, boring and godawful.

Vernon God Little is at The Space Arts Centre until 11th April. Tickets here.

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