New Theatre’s production of Vernon God Little, based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by DBC (‘Dirty But Clean’) Pierre, is loud, crass and full frontal. But that’s the intention. The adaption by screenwriter Tanya Ronder (one of two different stage adaptations of the book) is set in an unapologetically two-dimensional Texas with all the trimmings: yokels, God-fearing Christians, incest, white trash, corruption and plenty of horses.
At the centre of the story is Vernon, whose best friend Jesus has massacred his high school class and committed suicide. The townspeople of Martirio are looking for someone to blame and Vernon is caught up in the aftermath.
In its Sydney premiere, director Louise Fischer has pulled together an entertaining musical production that has energy and pace. It's also erratic, haphazard and, at times, wearying.
Luke Willing, who plays Vernon, is likeable and funny. He is as hapless and goofy as DCB Pierre’s character should be, while evoking a fine balance of pathos and slapstick. Like most of the cast, Willing’s Texan drawl is convincing and consistent, and it’s a relief that Vernon’s character is given room to display a little emotional depth in contrast to the dysfunctional ‘caricatures’ that surround him.
Those caricatures include Vernon’s Mom (Emma Louise), who is an exaggerated deep-south white-trash stereotype played to deafening proportions; the irritatingly charismatic wannabe-TV-reporter Lally (Steve Corner); and a pitch-perfect ‘Paris Hilton’ of Houston called Taylor (Olivia Dodds). Each one is delivered with sometimes grating fervour. The most impressive sideline star is the ‘ghost’ of Jesus, played by Stefan Gimenez. Present on stage for much of the show, silently lingering beside Vernon, the delicate, considered movements of Jesus act as the antithesis to the farcical series of events pushing Vernon closer to the death penalty.
The role of Jesus is a reminder of the sad fact that there is a very serious recurring truth to the story of Vernon God Little – ‘topical’ is an understatement – and the production deserves credit for getting the balance of humour and reverence right throughout the play. Its wink-to-the-audience style is complemented by the punctuation of a few sombre musical numbers. A handful of shaky individual performances are soon forgiven when the whole cast comes together for group songs, which are fun if nothing else. But the playfulness doesn’t substitute for punch.