Theatre N16, London – until 31 March 2017
It feels fictional but never absurdist, outlandish but never untenable. Andrea’s (Emily Thornton) situation is shocking and slightly outrageous, but is ultimately believable. Philip Ridley adds descriptive colour to the script to such an effective degree that the events in Dark Vanilla Jungle, no matter how beyond the realms of normality, are possible. And if they did all happen to one naïve, damaged, teenage girl, that is the most horrifying thought of all.
Andrea (Thornton) comes from a broken home – dad in prison, mum not caring about her daughter’s welfare. So desperate for approval and affection, she throws herself at the first sign of male attention she can get – mum’s relationships are tainted by men that come and go as they please, so why not the daughter’s too? As she skips away into flights of narrative fancy, Andrea recalls the story told to her about how her parents met. It’s so romantic that despite the subsequent issues she puts it on a pedestal – the festival singer locking eyes with an audience member and instantly falling head over heels; eloping in the dead of night to the big city; mum cutting off all her previous ties and not socialising in order to be with her father. Subjugation swiftly becomes romance.
Thornton balances Andrea’s personality on a knife edge. Fleeting memories churn her into a psychotic rage, an outburst as brief as the source of its generation. In the blink of an eye she is back to being naïve and sweet and all too saccharine. The effect is jarring, leaving the audience effectively off kilter. She is quickly and easily enamoured with an older man that more than a little resembles her father. But he exhibits the classically charming signs – sparkling gold tooth, flash car, pays her attention, treats her like a grown-up. No matter that he takes her to a sex party for underage gang rape – she willingly submits, so caught up in the fairy-tale. The typical warning signs are swept away of a tide of affection, longing and lust. Thornton is so involved in the performance that she loses herself in the character, proudly boasting of all these depraved acts performed on her, wearing them as a badge of honour.
In these moments, Andrew grows up. She no longer sees the females in her life as aspirational, but beneath her. Friend Emma suddenly becomes whiney and cowardly, mum becomes apathetic and common, her landlady (who is in fact her paternal grandmother) swiftly turns from shrill and cruel to frail and fearful. Ridley’s outlandish imagery trips off her tongue as if it were nothing – a living room covered in used condoms simply another occurrence of note before it gets swept under the rug. But now Thornton evolves her character – eyes dart about with suspicion and paranoia, her chest puffs out with a newfound bravado. She fixates on a new man, one she can care for and look after. Matt Kirk’s sound design, which up until this point has gone by unnoticed, now shifts to add to Andrea’s psychotic breakouts as they become more frequent.
At the end reality crashes in around her – Samson Hawkins intersperses the final breakdown with the most absurd snippets of Ridley’s script. At the time they seemed completely in keeping with the narrative, but isolated and exposed they showcase the absurdity of the entire situation. Dark Vanilla Jungle straddles the line that Ridley so expertly judges in all of his works, a shocking story that in today’s society feels too close for comfort.