Dark Vanilla Jungle @ Pleasance Courtyard
Philip Ridley arrives in Edinburgh with a story of one young woman's dark and emotionally intense search for love and acceptance
Philip Ridley brings his new play to the Fringe and it’s selling out fast. A young woman known as Andrea (played by comedian and Game of Thrones actress Gemma Whelan) nervously approaches the audience, mumbling as she searches for the right thing to say. She begins with a story of how she was once stung by a wasp, then promises that the frantic confessions she tells us about her life will be “the truth.” What slowly unfolds is Andrea’s account of events and her determination to prove why she is not ashamed of what she did to the soldier and her child.
This one woman show comes with a true tour de force of a performance from Whelan, whose sheer emotional and physical endurance is a sight to behold on its own. As Andrea, she drags the audience of the suitably intimate Pleasance Beneath venue through the gamut of emotions, revealing a complex personality who is at once painfully broken and extremely unsettling. Whelan fully demonstrates the true power of a great performance. There are no props, no costume changes, no special effects; just one woman and her story. For both Andrea and the audience, there is nowhere to hide.
Typical of Ridley’s work, the book is relentless in its grasp on the audience but entirely gripping and at times bleakly funny. On the surface, the plot seems overwrought and verging into soap opera territory, but thankfully never slides that far. Andrea’s stream of consciousness style captures the thrill of first love, the confusion and horror of her date rape and the deluded bliss of her “romance” with a comatose soldier. Ridley’s exploration of gender roles is particularly fascinating. Andrea grows up with no sturdy role model or parental figure and is horribly abused by older men, so as a result she becomes entirely dependent on men to make decisions on her life. She frequently asserts that men are active while women are passive, and screams gendered slurs at other women who rebel from this status quo. Male violence dominates our society, often to the point where we barely noticed it because it’s so engrained in our daily lives, and Ridley’s dissection of this is both an unexpected subversion and an all too familiar end result.
It’s not hard to see why Dark Vanilla Jungle is already selling out this Fringe. It’ll be hard to find a show as emotionally intense as this one, with a performance that grabs on tight and refuses to let go until the lights turn off. It’ll be a crime if Whelan isn’t a household name in the next few years. It may only be one woman in a dark room but make no mistake, this is theatre at its finest.