Andrea is seemingly a normal girl. She has her hopes and dreams, spends lots of time thinking about boys and has a complex relationship with her mother. But she’s certainly not lucky, partly down to bad decision making but mainly down to the complete selfishness of those who surround her. In Philip Ridley’s Dark Vanilla Jungle, she takes us on a violent journey which is a product of patriarchy and misogyny before the entire process is subverted. It’s a wounding piece of writing. But the performance from Gemma Whelan is the reason for this Supporting Wall’s success with this production.
It sounds crass to list the ‘issues’ that Ridley covers, but it helps to understand what he is attempting to understand as topics like rape, pregnancy, miscarriage and male violence all rear their ugly heads. Andrea is a girl who, through no fault of her own, defines herself in relation to the men around her, and remains in a perpetual state of paranoia. She wants affirmation from us that what she has done was right, but when she herself can’t even see the truth, it becomes ever more difficult to understand.
Ridley’s writing here has all the lyrical violence of his earlier plays, including the attention to detail which characterises the people he writes (a smear of ketchup, the twist of an amputated limb). Andrea is a woman of fancy, and flies between story and reality without pausing. Describing her father coming home, she imagines a steam train, even though when she sees him he looks exactly like the photo, “Only more in focus”.
Whelan is alone on stage for the duration, and though her Andrea attempts to connect with us, she is completely by herself. She rattles through Ridley’s poetic language at breakneck speed, rarely pausing for breath and galloping over the words in a way which truly makes you understand the meaning of the phrase “stream of consciousness”. It is one of those performances that truly takes you by surprise, knocks you sideways and then leaves you dazed trying to come to terms with what’s just happened.
It’s testament to David Mercatali’s skill as director that he manages to inject such energy and vigour into Ridley’s stark text, and though all we experience is a girl telling a story, it’s still a highly theatrical event. At one point, towards the end of the piece, Andrea asks “Has the world gone topsy fucking turvey?” Well, when our own state of affairs is not far off what we see in Dark Vanilla Jungle, I find it impossible not to answer “Yes. Yes it has”.