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Review Round-up: Grotesque Vernon Wins Praise

By • West End
DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize-winning novel Vernon God Little struck the Young Vic stage this week (Tuesday 9 May 2007, previews from 30 April) to the delight of critics and fans of this darkly comic look at the "grotesquerie" of an America gone mad in the wake of a Columbine-style school shooting.

Colin Morgan in his professional stage debut (he has not yet graduated from drama school) plays Vernon – a 15-year-old falsely accused of assisting his friend murder their classmates – leading an ensemble comprising Lorraine Bruce, Andrew Clark, Mariah Gale, Penny Layden, Mark Lockyer, Nathan Osgood, Joanna Scanlan and Ray Shell.

Critics were quick to note the play's "cruel but commercially valuable timing" in light of the recent Virginia Tech massacre. They went on to praise Tanya Ronder’s fast-paced adaptation of the 2003 novel matched by a flexible set designed by Ian MacNeil and vigorous direction from Rufus Norris, whose productions of Afore Night Come and Festen have earned him two Evening Standard Awards.

Vernon God Little had its first two previews cancelled after actress Sian Reeves injured herself on stage during a technical rehearsal (See News, 29 Apr 2007). The season runs until 9 June.


  • Malcolm Rock for Whatsonstage.com (two stars) – “If you like your theatre bawdy, loud and relentless, you would have been right at home amongst the whooping Vernon God Little first night crowd. Most of the evening’s vociferous approbation belonged to newcomer Colin Morgan whose stamina-demanding performance is comfortably inflated alongside those of his foul-mouthed co-stars who frame this cruelly black comic tale of gross exploitation, mass murder and media misrepresentation most brazen. Tanya Ronder’s stage adaptation of DBC Pierre’s award-winning novel provides plenty of opportunity for crude visual gags and technicolour song-and-dance routines but dashes any hope of emotional weight. Director Rufus Norris’ hard-working ensemble is perfectly balanced in its grotesque portrayal of America’s most farcical as viewed through the embellishing eyes of our unsurprisingly bewildered teenage protagonist.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Given recent events in Virginia, this may not seem the ideal time to be staging a show whose background is a high school massacre. But Ronder's faithful version makes clear that Pierre's target is the psychotic culture surrounding such tragedies. In turning a first-person narrative into drama, Ronder inevitably sacrifices some of the throwaway brilliance of Pierre's prose: no play can match such lines, saying of a bus-station oldster, ‘the skin of his face hangs down in pockets, like he has lead implants’. The clutch of voracious neighbours who batten on Vernon's hapless mother are also reduced in scale. But what comes across effectively is the grotesquerie of a community that contains paedophile psychiatrists, and which instantly produces T-shirts trading on mass murder.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh's in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “What cruel, but commercially valuable timing Tanya Ronder's adaptation of DBC Pierre's terrifying, black comedy novel enjoys! The award-winning Vernon God Little not only shows how Pierre's scape-goated, eponymous hero is driven to death row by gross miscarriages of justice, after his best friend, Jesus, has shot dead 16 of their teenage classmates in a Texas school. It also comes to the stage just weeks after the comparable, real life murders on a university campus in Virginia, where another youngster ran fatally amok. Pierre's fiction and Ronder's adaptation, as the remorseless hustle of Rufus Norris' powerful production kept on reminding me, proves even more shocking than Virginia's awful reality. I kept giving in to shudders of amusement and laughter at this gross but believable picture of the disunited states of America. It will touch important chords with the young.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) - "Directed with a darkly larky flair by Rufus Norris and suffused with country-and-western songs, it makes for an evening that is (if you'll excuse my Texan) banjo-pluckin', lardbutt-fingerin' and paradigm-shiftin' good. With a cast that skilfully plays multiple roles, this theatrical version is able to heighten the sense of a crazy world that is in conspiracy against the protagonist."

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Pierre writes brilliantly, but like many brilliant writers, he doesn’t go in for pieties. There is little hand-wringing about the grief experienced by the bereaved families, little explicit condemnation of the absurdities of American gun law, or rather the lack of gun law. Instead Pierre treats us to a vivid first-person narrative from the most screwed up American teenager since Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, and a blackly comic feast of American gothic set in a ghastly little town in deepest Texas. Beyond its wild satire and frequent obscenity, there is compassion and a celebration of life lurking somewhere in Pierre’s dark and twisted narrative. I can’t think that anyone except prudes will think of walking out of Rufus Norris’ exuberant production of Tanya Ronder’s nifty adaptation.”

    - by Malcolm Rock


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