There are many positives in this production of Philip Ridley’s Dark Vanilla Jungle. I could mention the pared down staging, the simple yet effective lighting or the careful injections of humour. But the roaring success of the show hinges almost completely on the accomplished and mesmeric performance of Lexie Braverman.
She plays Andrea, the work’s only character, who grows up in an unstable household where she experiences physical, sexual and psychological abuse. We see her enter early adulthood as she grapples with this legacy and witness her descend, almost imperceptibly, into a kind of psychosis. Braverman is instantly engaging, a commanding yet subtle presence on the stage, who expertly leads the audience through the twisting, spiralling narrative.
The dizzying complexity of the play is hard to grasp in one go. Narratives, images, metaphors and scraps of language swirl around one another, recalling earlier moments and endowing them with a retrospective sense of pathos. It explores the sources of identity, based in childhood, sexual awakening and early trauma. It grapples with this identity’s realisation and expression, through appropriating and recasting the past and faltering engagements with society’s habitual modes of viewing people and their relationships.
As the action loops towards its uncompromising conclusion, the work becomes more physically demanding. This is again something that Braverman manages adroitly. Her unabashed depictions of the play’s sex scenes, its rape sequence, the abject depictions of bleeding, birth and the protagonist’s crushing mental anguish in its final moments are all pitched extremely well and without tipping, as they easily could, into hysteria and melodrama.
As the play is told entirely from Andrea’s perspective, it is not until the performance is well advanced that the audience gets a glimpse of the true extent of her addled take on the world. This transition is handled particularly well, as Braverman inhabits the character so entirely that we have a hard time letting go of the façade she has constructed.
All this isn’t to say that the production is entirely without its faults. Ridley’s text, as lyrical and affecting as it is, sometimes has the sense of containing one twist too many and risks testing the audience’s patience. And the one chink in the armour of Braverman’s performance are a few unsuccessful attempts at regional accents. But, despite the Cockpit Theatre’s packed bar, the auditorium was shockingly empty. They didn’t know what they were missing.
Dark Vanilla Jungle is playing at the Cockpit Theatre until August 14.