Dark Vanilla Jungle is a breathless rush of a play. It’s delivered in double-quick time – though with control and precision – by a single actor in everyday clothes, in an ordinary room with the house lights on. It’s a mass of events and characters tangled into a narrative that spins out of control towards a wildly grotesque conclusion. I feel certain that it shouldn’t work. But somehow, and rather magnificently, it does.
Philip Ridley’s Fringe-First-winning script is, unsurprisingly, both riveting and grim. It tells the tale of a girl named Andrea, who searches for love, but finds only love’s dark shadow. Abandoned by her parents – and, it’s implied, sexually abused by her father – she naively believes she’s found a man who’ll care for her, clinging to that comfort even when it’s clear he has something much more sinister in mind. And that’s just the prelude. The main act is the bizarre and desperate deception her misshapen emotions drive her to.
Actor Aea Varfis-van Warmelo is captivating as Andrea, speaking directly to her audience, words pouring out of her mouth in a torrent of unburdening. She’s anxious, restless, talks much too fast; she discusses life-changing events one moment and minutiae the next, at least until the horror of the second half kicks in. If you can keep your grip on everything you hear, you’ve a sharper mind than mine, but even when the frenetic monologue crashes over you it’s still doing its job – evoking a psyche on the very edge of sanity. And director Julia Midtgard has got your back: when something’s genuinely important, she slows the pace down, ensuring that the key details are the ones that stick.
In a very weird piece of direction, however, Warmelo at times leaves the stage, walking among the audience and even delivering certain key scenes from behind our heads. I guess the idea’s to add some motion and dynamism to the piece, but it felt contrived to me – and uncomfortable in a way that distanced me from the monologue rather than strengthening it. The room isn’t really set up for this free-range style, and it’s hard to engage with a piece of theatre when you’re fussing about the best way to swivel in your seat.
That peculiarity aside, this is a powerful and challenging production, which barely puts a foot wrong throughout its 70-minute running time. The unremitting grimness clearly won’t be for everyone, and the sheer speed of the narration may come, at first, as a shock. But hang in there, because ultimately, Dark Vanilla Jungle delivers plentiful rewards.