Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Dark Vanilla Jungle, Pleasance Courtyard

Review: Dark Vanilla Jungle, Pleasance Courtyard

It’s possible to admire a show without much liking it. For all that it demonstrates impeccable technique, Philip Ridley’s play – and his Edinburgh Fringe debut, incidentally – is actually pretty reprehensible.

A monologue delivered by a deeply damaged teenage girl, Dark Vanilla Jungle attempts to give us a sense – an analogous experience of the mental disarray suffered by its protagonist, Andrea (Gemma Whelan), as she careers into a frenetic madness. There’s no doubt he achieves it, thanks to the craft of his writing, but I’d argue that the attempt is misplaced.

Andrea’s madness stems out of abuse. She was unloved as a child, abandoned by her parents and adopted by her snarl of a grandmother. (We’re rather close to Roald Dahl territory here, by the way.) Out of this childhood, Andrea comes to romanticise romance itself, to pine for true, fairytfale love and clutch at the slightest sign of affection. It leaves her easy prey and her first relationship – which looks, at first, like a standard-issue instance of a young man at the school gates, just nudging the bounds of acceptability – leads to her being groomed and gang-raped.

No matter how often and how badly she’s hurt, Andrea never develops the protective impulse of caution. Each time she falls headlong and each time she lands badly. Eventually she falls in love with a severely wounded soldier, lying comatose in a hospital bed after a stint in Afghanistan – a man, one presumes, that can’t possibly do her harm. Yet, Andrea’s mental state unravels. She tailspins – and we, as audience, do too.

That’s because Ridley writes in much the same way that Gareth Bale runs with a football – at pace but always in total control – and just like Bale, he confounds then unzips any defences in his way. Dramaturgically speaking, Dark Vanilla Jungle is masterful. Ridley’s tactic is to frazzle his audience. Towards its end, his writing starts to loop back on itself, picking up images, phrases, motifs from earlier that you didn’t fully grasp first time around. He combines them differently. He keeps connections coming. He increases the pace. The text becomes a Catherine Wheel spitting out sparks in every direction. All of them are significant, you just can’t remember why, and your grip on the show, on its story, starts to unravel as you spin out gloriously. This is dizzying, disorientating stuff – and it’s spun solely from words spoken by Ridley’s monologuing protagonist, Andrea, a deeply damaged teenage girl.

Writing that achieves such a strong visceral effect is incredibly rare – and it deserves praise wherever it appears. That said, I would happily consign it to the Fringe dustbin. It’s effective – hugely so – but quite wrongheadedly so.

My original instinct was that, by spitting connections left, right and centre, was that Ridley was trying to disrupt cause-and-effect; that is, to suggest that there was no way of leaping from Andrea’s unloved childhood to her abuse and on to her ultimate breakdown. However, the more he tries to confound us, the more obvious it becomes that Ridley is doing the exact opposite. He’s trying to let us into Andrea’s headspace and, in doing so, he advocates the narrative connection of each step.

That’s problematic, because while there are, of course, instances where the through-line holds, where a difficult childhood breeds problems later in life, Ridley makes it seem inevitable – a matter of cause and effect. As such, he invokes determinism. Andrea’s fate is sealed from the start. Damned by nature and nurture, she never had a hope.

What really works against Ridley, however, is his attempt to give us a sense of her headspace. That’s riddled with problems. It assumes that he can control the effect of his writing on every audience member and, worse, it assumes the equivalence of that experience with that of his protagonist – especially since he implies her typicality so strongly. Ridley comes awfully close – far too close for comfort – to using his play as a functioning effects-of-abuse simulator. Dark Vanilla Jungle doesn’t engage our empathy. It forces it.

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