Vernon God Little comes with impressive credentials and a lot to live up to. Based on the Booker prizing winning novel by DBC Pierre and directed by award-winning director Rufus Norris, this updated adaptation by Tanya Ronder fortunately, for the most part, manages to match – and sometimes exceed – those expectations.
Vernon Little is in trouble: his best friend just went on a homicidal rampage through his school before killing himself: the police are looking for someone to punish, the media wants a story, and Vernon was in the wrong place at the wrong time, found at the scene with no alibi and a bag of ammunition.
Around this pitch-black scenario, a funny, fast-moving and frenetic play is built. Hitting the ground running and rarely pausing for breath, this is a show that swoops you up at the start and doesn’t let you go: Ian MacNeil’s impressively versatile sets swirl around in a rapidly changing blur of furniture and props, used effectively and emotively, not an inch of the stage wasted, displaying the consummate stagecraft Norris is well-known for.
At the centre of the maelstrom, Joseph Drake as Vernon is astonishingly good given that this is his professional debut. In a physical, vulnerable performance, he captures perfectly the contradictions of a teenage boy: gauche, shy, cocky, confused, manipulative and manipulated. The rest of the cast are equally strong, many taking multiple roles. Peter De Jersey is magnificently sleazy as a would-be TV star on the make, while as Vernon’s beleaguered mother, Clare Burt is perfect as a woman trying to snatch what little joy life has left her. Johnnie Fiori adds a powerful voice and charisma to the proceedings, although her roles often veer into caricature. As exotic dancer Taylor in sprayed-on hotpants, Lily James plays a not-so-ditzy blonde, her comic skills as impressive as her abs (and unrecognisable in her dual role Ella), while as the late Jesus, Luke Brady drifts across the stage as a melancholic, musical ghost, his plaintive singing underscoring the drama.
Music is in fact an integral part of the show, and used well, though the quality musical direction and arrangement by Phil Bateman is occasionally undercut by the weakness of some of the voices.
There are other problems. The play is far too reliant on stereotypes, from the comedy foreigner to the sassy fat black woman to, in Ella, what feminist website Jezebel calls the ‘manic pixie dreamgirl’ archetype so beloved by male writers in thrall to their own sensitivity. Despite the relentless pace, the first half is around ten minutes too long, and while there are some impressive set pieces in the second, it too often becomes chaotic and unfocused. But overall, while these flaws are not insignificant, they are ultimately forgivable in a production bristling with verve, humour and – ironically, for a story set in the aftermath of mass murder – an unmistakeable zest for life.