Black comedy material doesn’t come much darker than the fallout of a school shooting; in the wake of the Aurora massacre, the sound of gunshots in the opening of Vernon God Little is brutal and unsettling. The way we react to such atrocities, how we try to make sense of senseless acts, though, is a perfect foundation for gallows humour: that American cinemas banned Batman costumes but not weapons gave us all a bitter laugh.
Vernon God Little is about that process, but from the inside out. The titular Vernon Little (Luke Willing) is a 15-year-old from Martirio, whose best friend and fellow outcast, Jesus Navarro (Stefan Giminez), shoots sixteen of their fellow students before turning his gun on himself. This tiny Texan town (the sort of place you’d imagine if Flannery O’Connor wrote Twin Peaks) makes Vernon the devil of the story, inflating his role from potential accessory to second gunman in a media-tweaked frenzy of grief and hurt.
Stoking this frenzy is the smooth-talking TV reporter, Eulalio “Lally” Ledesma (Steve Corner), who woos the small-town folk with big-city charm. With all the integrity of a Today Tonight employee, he coerces Vernon into telling his side of the story, only to turn Vernon’s words against him, and paint him as a deviant and a murderer.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that this doesn’t sound like a set-up rich with laughs, but the combination of DBC Pierre’s phenomenal dialogue and vibrant performances make for an absolute joy. Pierre’s characterisation is both broad and scarily precise, and the cast has a wonderful time with it. An early stand out and constant scene-stealer is Claudia Barrie, whose Pam is both absurd and believable – as Vernon’s only real defender, her character is one of the few allowed to be warm and enthusiastic, and Barrie is a delight. Wonderful, too, is Steve Corner, whose oily, Jeff Winger-ish Lally is a perfect villain, all slick clothes and slicker morals.
The first half of the show is a riot, pushing the absurdity and black comedy of the story even further with sudden musical outbursts. Music is a frequent reference in Pierre’s novel, from the jammed Glen Campbell tape in Pam’s car to Christopher Cross’s ‘Sailing’ in the final chapters, and this adaptation relishes that, taking any excuse to stick in a singalong moment. Though they lose their impact after so many, the song selections are excellent, and the live performances pitch-perfect.
By the second half, though, the story’s escalation gets out of hand, though, and too much plot has to be jammed in. That causes some problems with pacing and clarity, but the story itself is so absurd that that doesn’t spoil things – in the midst of such chaos, the emergence of Taylor Figueroa (Olivia Dodds) is one of the play’s best parts. A would-be starlet with a disconcerting fetish for Vernon’s alleged murders, Dodds deftly disguises Taylor’s more horrid nature under a veneer of All-American Sweetheart charm.
In the midst of all this is poor Vernon, too wide-eyed and innocent to defend himself from the townsfolk’s misdirected pain. Luke Willing makes Vernon more sympathetic than the disaffected, Catcher in the Rye-ish Vernon of the novel, so it’s all the more frustrating to see him make so many wrongheaded choices. That said, it paints Vernon as the victim, where DBC Pierre did a great job of making him an ambiguous character, neither hero nor anti-hero. It’s a slightly simplistic reading, and one that makes the happy ending jar a little with the cynical attitude that preceded it.
Despite those minor quibbles, though, Vernon God Little is an excellent adaptation of a stellar book. Black, bleak and absurd, its message is deliciously unclear: there’s no moral at the end, no sense made of the senseless. The only thing you can do is laugh.