Where does one begin to describe Dark Vanilla Jungle? As a character study, this one-woman show has so many layers, one doesn’t know where to begin. A victim? A ‘monster’? Or just a maladjusted girl – the product of neglect? Written by Philip Ridley and directed by Samson Hawkins, Dark Vanilla Jungle revolves around a teenage girl called Andrea (Emily Thornton) whose life has spiralled out of control. Andrea, however – sitting in the calm eye of the storm – has a different perspective of things.
Looking back at the play, there are so many tell-tale signs about what Andrea has gone through. Eyeballing the audience as they take to their seats, we notice her smock attire and that the only items to hand are a bucket and toilet roll. Hmm… she’s kept in isolation for some reason. References to a baby and a soldier at this juncture don’t have any meaning… yet.
Her initial recollections about her mother and her parents’ courtship are sweet, but it soon becomes apparent that her father’s release from prison precipitated all manner of events. Over 80 or so minutes that Andrea engages with her audience, we see many conflicting sides to her personality. Sometimes speaking with bright-eyed wonder at a pleasant memory, a darkness will then suddenly descend over her face and she’ll bombard the audience in accusatory tones, her bile saved especially for women in general. Just as the Biblical Eve was blamed for all the woes of the world, so Andrea’s mother – and every other woman – are labelled with the brand of ‘feckless’ for abandoning her when her dad’s on the scene and pretending she doesn’t exist.
‘Invisibility’ at home leads to succumbing to the charms of a young man who frequents her local McDonalds. Of course he is too good be true and like the lead character in Sarah Hehir’s Child Z, finds that others’ definition of love is very fluid indeed…
Inwardly I jumped for joy that Andrea found the strength to walk away from her situation, but if I was relieved at that juncture, it acted as a sucker punch for the later developments – the treacherous road to finding ‘love’ in the most inaccessible of places…
If we believe everything Andrea says initially, we start to take some of her later revelations with a pinch of salt. By the time all the ‘facts’ are revealed, the implications of what she’s divulged are staggering… grotesque …and yet worthy of our compassion. She is still a teenager after all and everything she’s done has been to fill the void in her heart – to feel valued and loved.
As or ‘Andrea’ herself… a lesser actor would have balked at playing such a complex and disturbing role, but Thornton – like Andrea – grabs the opportunity with both hands and embraced its darkness, as well as its lighter aspects.
Had Andrea had siblings to love her and provide a reality check, who knows what would have happened to her.
© Michael Davis 2017
Dark Vanilla Jungle runs at Theatre N16, London until Friday 31st March.