Prior to this, my only experience of Philip Ridley’s writing was through his rather generic and transparent plays for young people which, as a GCSE Drama student, we were given to study. Such toothless works as Sparkleshark and Brokenville did not exactly hold Ridley in my mind as ‘a visionary’, as others believe. This play, however, showed a much darker, twisted side to this playwright. Ridley here creates monsters in the mind rather than the ones you find beneath your bed.
Company of Sirens, who are clearly well-acquainted with Ridley’s theatre, handle Dark Vanilla Jungle’s uncompromising tone with an innovative hand. Audiences enter to find a girl manically scribbling ‘MUM’ and other childlike drawings on a chalkboard floor – a stroke of genius from director Chris Durnall and designer Bethany Seddon. Lighting from Ben Stimpson is understated yet effective, as is William Basinski’s discreetly ominous score.
Ridley retains his apparent affinity with the youth here by making his focal protagonist a damaged but animated young girl called Andrea (Seren Vickers). Performed entirely as a gutsy monologue, Dark Vanilla Jungle comprises Andrea’s distressing experiences as a vulnerable girl who only wants to be told that she’s beautiful. As a result of this desperation for love, Andrea has done some bad things, but she’s adamant to convince us why she is not ashamed and why it all isn’t completely her fault. Ridley addresses issues of sex trafficking as Andrea is seduced by Tyron Evans, a seedy man-of-mystery, who ends up taking her to a very different, perverse kind of party. We then hear of the reverberations of this event and how it drove her to commit some horrifying acts – what she did to a wounded soldier, what she did to her baby… In Andrea, Ridley explores the vulnerability of a young girl in an increasingly sordid society and, in doing so, reaches nauseating, if implausible, conclusions.
Seren Vickers gives an intense and impressive rendering of Andrea, veering between gossipy chatter to stomach-turning hysteria in seconds. Vickers offers an assured interpretation of the character that could only have been achieved through intense rehearsal and analysis with director Chris Durnall. However, the sheer endurance of her performance can only be her own. In Ridley’s more humorous passages – such as the musing that nativity paintings of childbirth are always so clean – Vickers can tickle an audience with her barefaced silliness. And in scenes of devastating trauma, Vickers gives explosive depictions of grief and torment.
The play itself never quite reaches the profundity it should. The plot is somewhat predictable and the writing a little stilted. But Ridley’s sincere desire to tell the story of a damaged and defenceless young girl, shunned and ignored by those who should love her, shines through. Company of Sirens outshine the play’s troughs with their earnest objective to make great theatre.
Dark Vanilla Jungle is at Chapter Stiwdio until 7th March.