Trying to instill a sense of southern comfort into a converted church on the Isle of Dogs is no mean feat so it is a mark of new company Burn Bright Theatre’s grand ambition that they’ve taken on the Texan shenanigans of Vernon God Little for their debut production. DBC Pierre’s award-winning novel was adapted by Tanya Ronder for a hugely successful production at the Young Vic back in 2007 and it is that version that this youthful and exuberant company are tackling here.
It’s a striking story – 15 year old Vernon goes on the run after being accused of collaborating with his best friend Jesus in the massacre of 16 of their schoolmates in Martirio, Texas, Jesus having turned the gun on himself and leaving Vernon as a convenient scapegoat. At the mercy of a rapacious media that won’t leave him alone, law enforcement who are convinced of his guilt and a society hungry for ever more daring reality TV, proving his innocence seems like an impossible task.
Katherine Timms’ production is at its best when it truly relaxes into the Southern Gothic ambiance of the tale without overloading it. She’s assisted enormously by Odinn Orn Hilmarsson’s musical direction which introduces an Americana-inflected soundtrack both sung and performed by the cast. A hoe-down to “May The Circle Be Unbroken”, a sway through “Are You Lonesome Tonight”, a gorgeous rendition of Christopher Cross’ “Sailing”, the music sets both the collaborative spirit of the production but also the best qualities of the show.
Isobel Power Smith’s deliberately ramshackle design makes inventive use of the nooks and crannies of the space of The Space and highlights a rather fun playfulness – a granny cart becomes Grandmother’s car, remote controls become guns, shopping trolleys turn into police vans. And with the ensemble freewheeling their way through any number of vivid supporting characters, the first half bubbles with potential.
Once we head south of the border after the interval though, things go literally a little too loco in Acapulco – surreal touches involving phones and chickens strain too hard for zaniness, the ensuing court scene is comparatively flat and something of the earlier magic is missing. Hints of it return once the music finally comes back, especially in the beautiful duet of “I’ll Fly Away” and the way the capers finally resolve themselves but it can feel a long time coming.
There’s no doubting the commitment of the talented cast though. Callum McGowan inhabits all the teenage awkwardness of Vernon whilst maintaining a spark of hope and decency even in the darkest moments. Bart Edwards’ cocksure Lally is monstrously charming, Lauren Harvey’s Taylor is delightfully brash and Stacey Evans ensures Vernon’s mum Doris never loses her compassion, even when seeking comfort in Southern Comfort. A bold if slightly flawed start for Burn Bright.
Vernon God Little runs at The Space Theatre from Tuesday 24th March to Saturday 11th April 2015