A witty and dark satire, D.B.C. Pierre’s novel Vernon God Little makes for compulsive reading. The story centres on the character of Vernon Gregory Little whose bullied best friend Jesus Navarro kills sixteen of his classmates before turning the gun on himself in small town Martirio, Texas. This is a scenario that all too disturbingly echoes the real Columbine massacre, as well as other high school shootings that have become increasingly commonplace in America. Vernon is forced to flee Martirio as the townspeople blame him for the massacre.
Tanya Ronder’s critically acclaimed theatre adaptation of the book initially premièred at the Young Vic back in 2007, winning an Olivier for Best New Play. This particular revival is by emerging company Burn Bright Theatre, in collaboration with Space Productions.
Above all else, Vernon God Little casts an acerbic eye over the amorality and unscrupulousness of the media industry in America. Everyone, it seems – except for Vernon – immediately becomes a caricature of themselves when a camera is pointed in their direction, to ridiculous effect. Even Vernon’s mother is willing to sell him down the river for her moment in the spotlight. He is one of the few honest people in this murky world of artifice and double-crossing. Yet he’s also the one who’s painted by others as the villain, the killer.
Callum McGowan’s portrayal of Vernon in this production succeeds very well in drawing out his subtleties as a character – his vulnerability and naivety, his inherent goodness – alongside the overt surly bitterness and resentment he presents as a front to others. While the first half of the play is largely comedic, the second act ushers in a much darker tone. But even the darkest moments are still often suffused with comedy – black comedy though this may be. The trial is one of the most over-the-top and entertaining scenes, where prevarication, posturing and the skewing of words abound. Bart Edwards, superb throughout the play as the dishonest journalist Lally, really comes into his own here, with such overwrought, self-righteous declarations as: “Lord forgive them for they know not what they do!” The farcical nature of the trial is made evident. It doesn’t matter what Vernon says in his defence, as the verdict of the jury has already been decided, thanks to the negative media attention he’s received. The court descends into Kafkaesque cacophony and chaos as the scene closes.
Events suddenly and swiftly take a dystopian twist. Vernon finds himself on death row and his activities broadcast to the nation 24/7. Members of the public tune in and vote for the death row inmate – the ‘candidate’ – that they wish to be killed, in an ultimate parody of the reality TV show format. Katherine Timms, the director of this production, says: “If you look at our own society’s obsession with TV programmes like Big Brother, it’s easy to imagine a dystopia where our collective lust for celebrity gossip could take a dark turn”; this is what makes the ‘reality show’ section so powerful and resonant. At the cynical heart of this society is the belief that everything can be televised and is up for public consumption: nothing is private any more, not even death.
Does the crazed pace and vibrancy of the novel translate well to this production? In short: yes. Although Burn Bright is a relatively young company, the cast prove accomplished in channelling the frenzied anarchy of Vernon God Little, partly through the energised and high-quality musical interludes they play. There isn’t a weak performance to be found: all cast members are spot-on, with an in-depth understanding of the material and the characters’ intricacies.
Vernon God Little is playing at The Space until 11 April. For more information and tickets, see The Space website.