Pros: A courageous, committed performance from Lexie Braverman
Cons: Overlong. It almost feels like two plays in one.
Andrea wants to tell us about herself. She’s clearly anxious about how we perceive her, and she has a hesitant, muddled way of speaking that suggests she doesn’t often have an audience. She’s also vivacious and charmingly candid. When she talks about her mother’s singing, or the first time she kissed Tyrone, her face lights up and the joy that she relives is almost palpable. It is hard not to warm to such unguarded, childlike enthusiasm.
But Andrea has a dark story to tell. Abandoned by her singing mother at the age of 12, she was easy pickings, a few years later, for Tyrone. He bought her pretty dresses, called her beautiful and with just a little attention and affection, turned the head of the girl who was used to being ‘transparent.’ She describes how he carried her up the stairs to the ‘special party’ where his friends were waiting. She thought something wasn’t quite right, but she felt like a princess, and she could feel his heart beating; nothing else mattered.
No, Philip Ridley hasn’t pulled any punches with Dark Vanilla Jungle. There are descriptive passages which really do turn the stomach, and at every turn the dangers are signposted so clearly that the audience can only watch in impotent horror as Andrea walks guilelessly into traps which are all too familiar from Rochdale and Rotherham. Lexie Braverman, as Andrea, gives an utterly committed solo performance that is gut-wrenching to watch and must be exhausting to deliver. Even as Andrea is changed by her experiences and succumbs to mental illness, we keep being given flashes of the endearing young woman we met at the outset.
The trouble with Dark Vanilla Jungle is that it’s a play of two ill-matched halves: the story of the abuse and the story of what follows. In the aftermath of the abuse, and more importantly the discovery that Tyrone doesn’t love her and isn’t going to marry her, Andrea changes very abruptly. She becomes callous, deviously manipulative and, ‘falling in love’ with a man who couldn’t possibly love her, commits her own deception on another vulnerable woman. Where the first part of the play is shocking but believable, the second part is graphic and lurid. The play would be better (and a better length) if it substituted this epilogue for a more low-key, less tabloid exploration of the effects of sexual abuse, and put more flesh on the bones of the minor characters.
The set comprises a table and chair, and there is one prop – an A4 pad. Those three items are used imaginatively to evoke different spaces, but it really is a credit to Ridley’s writing that it’s so easy to picture the grubby top-floor flat, the cramped ward cubicle, the front room with too many canaries.
So does the play tell us anything new about child sexual exploitation? I don’t think so. But it does succeed in illustrating the way that childhood influences – however worthless or wicked – shape our older selves. Each of the adults in Andrea’s life leaves their own mark on her. From her mother she learns that a lady doesn’t wipe sweat, she dabs it. From her father, that it’s romantic for a woman to sacrifice everything for her man. From Miss Vye, whom she despises, but who may well be the only decent adult around, she learns the ‘correct’ way to store cups, and with heartbreaking irony what she learns from Tyrone is a love of chivalry.
This is not a play I’d hurry to see again, because it’s emotionally pretty gruelling. But it was well worth seeing once, for Braverman’s intense performance and Ridley’s equally intense writing.
Author: Philip Ridley
Director: Jerome Davis & Staci Sabarsky
Producer: Burning Coal Theatre Company
Box office: 020 7258 2925
Booking link: http://tickets.thecockpit.org.uk/Sales/Shows/Dark-Vanilla-Jungle#book
Booking until: 14 August 2016