Tragic and beautiful, hilarious and heart wrenching; Dark Vanilla Jungle is an emotional rollercoaster ride from start to finish. Phillip Ridley’s theatrical master stroke will leave you feeling very grateful for the life you have.
“I was stung by a wasp once. Shall I tell you about it?” As it turns out, far more has happened to main character Andrea aside from this traumatic childhood incident. But this line, which opens the play at Theatre N16, is the key to everything in Phillip Ridley’s Dark Vanilla Jungle.
From the moment I entered the auditorium, the magic had already begun. Actress Emily Thorton (Andrea) was frantically pacing about the stage in only a hospital gown; staring maniacally into the eyes of various audience members. When the play starts, there’s no slow fade or incidental music – just a sudden drop of the houselights and no sound but Emily’s fluttering breath.
I am not going to give any of the plot away, as I feel one of things that made the play so enjoyable was the suspense in finding out the secrets of Andrea’s life. But thematically, this is a play about how we as humans cope with the horrific realities of life. “You have to camouflage things a bit, or else things just get unbearable.”
The play never once dragged or felt forced. Phillip Ridley has done a great job of blending the language from one line to another poetically (watch out for the line where Andrea goes from talking about severed human limbs to eating a dead animal carcass), it was almost as if we were watching a live feed of the thoughts popping into Andrea’s head. Perhaps my favorite aspect of Phillip Ridley’s writing was the detail with which he described the objects, places, people, thoughts and feelings Andrea had encountered. This gave a vicarious element to the piece, bringing the audience into Andrea’s head during her moments of pain and helplessness.
Emily Thornton was exceptional as Andrea. She and director Samson Hawkins have clearly explored the text with an appropriate level of fearlessness and conviction. Emily had perfect pace and never went too far or fell short when it came to matching an intention to a line. It was flabbergasting to watch as Emily switched suddenly from cheeky and charming to unhinged and aggressive within the blink of an eye. I am very excited to see what Emily does next (although it is likely Dark Vanilla Jungle will run for a good while now). The only thing I could nit pick about Emily’s performance was the fact that she occasionally loses her diction over certain phrases and sentences. It wasn’t overly distracting, but the style of the piece was intense and precise and when these flutters did occur it was obvious they were mistakes.
After the performance, I stood up from my seat and looked out across the audience. Faces frozen in amazement and horror. Bodies unable to lift themselves from their seats. Dark Vanilla Jungle was an emotionally draining experience that left me feeling very lucky that I hadn’t experienced Andrea’s lifelong misfortune. Definitely not a show for the faint hearted.