The Cockpit Theatre seats 420 people. Last night's production had an attendance of 9. But, curiously, Burning Coal's production of Philip Ridley's Dark Vanilla Jungle is only amplified by the vast empty space that greets actor Lexie Braverman as she enters.
Philip Ridley is a playwright notorious for grappling with subjects most would rather sweep under the rug. His work covers the gamut of extreme violence, sexual perversion and psychological oppressiveness, all slathered with pitch black humour and an obsessive attention to detail. But, even amongst his atrocity-studded bibliography, Vanilla Dark Jungle has a certain notoriety.
Part confessional/part autobiography, Ridley introduces us to Andrea, a young girl. All she wants is to love, and to be loved in return. Yet life can't stop kicking her in the teeth: her father disappeared soon after she was born, leaving her to be raised by her couldn't-give-a-shit Mum, who callously and suddenly disappears upon his return. Abandoned in a grotty flat, she tiptoes along the borders of mental illness until she's 'rescued' by her never before seen grandmother, referred to only as 'Mrs V'.
The proceeding 75 minutes are a symphony of horribleness: neglect, delusion, paedophilia, gang-rape, manipulation, paranoia, self-loathing, fear, abuse, miscarriage and complete and abject humiliation. But hey, that's Ridley for 'ya.
All that's conveyed through a jumbled up narrative through. Andrea talks as if we're interviewing her on her life to date, guiding us through a roughly chronological story with constant detours into apparently trivial minutia. Tiny anecdotes and observations pile up on top of the core narrative, forcing the audience to play detective as they sift through the story and work out what's driving this mysterious, enigmatic, disturbing girl.
The monologue is filled with typical Ridleyian down-at-heel motifs, for example, an early profession of love for the soft pastry in a McDonalds' Apple Pie later echoes in the description of an amputee's sutured stump, or the way her father takes a big scoop of ice-cream repeats in an uneasily fetishistic description of a scoop taken out of man's skull by a landmine. Things eventually come full circle in a wonderfully ambiguous ending that marks the point where the subtle tendrils of fantasy that've nibbled at the corners Dark Vanilla Jungle finally envelope it.
It all adds up to a vivid and bleak snapshot of modern femininity. Girls grow up in a society that teaches them that they're there to provide. Andrea constantly delineates the sexes: "women suggest, men decide" and "women suck, men spit" taking an increasingly warped pleasure in being submissive and accommodating to men. Ridley being Ridley, Andrea's submissiveness goes to some really fucked up places.
Dark Vanilla Jungle is not an easy piece to perform. Andrea is all over the emotional spectrum and constantly toys with audience sympathies. That said, Lexie Braverman knocks it out of the goddamn park from minute one. Making lemonade from lemons, she seizes on the diminished audience as an opportunity to interrogate individuals during the monologue - shooting accusatory gazes and questions into the audience that make you shrink back in your seat when you're targeted
During one emotional high-point, two hooray-Henrys loudly blunder into the theatre by mistake, not having realised there's a play on. One of them (called Rupert, natch) loudly chats behind the curtain, throwing it open and recoiling in shock when he realises there's a show on. Braverman doesn't flinch, instantly (and quite brilliantly) incorporating this intrusion into her performance.
That's just one example of the many micro-moments that combine to make a gripping performative tapestry. Braverman's Andrea is somehow girlish/mature, sexy/ugly, manipulative/manipulated etc all at once. Being able to tease out a crystal clear character through this is partly down to Ridley's evocative writing, but also down to Braverman's viscerally palpable, real Andrea.
My only slight criticisms land with the writing. There's a change in plot midway through that feels suspiciously like two separate but similar monologues have been awkwardly welded together and the rough edges smoothed out as best as possible. Plot elements from the first are suddenly abandoned, to be replaced with a whole new set of characters and situations. Still, the themes, symbols and character remain consistent throughout, so it's not too jarring.
Though poorly attended, Burning Coal's Dark Vanilla Jungle knocked my socks off. It's an ambitious, beautifully performed and smartly directed gem of a production that deserves much more of an audience than it had last night. Make a beeline for the Cockpit!
Dark Vanilla Jungle is at the Cockpit until 13th August. Tickets here.