How do you explore a dysfunctional young life, moulded by a quest for love and security and the denial of those needs? How do you portray the consequences of those experiences on stage? You take a dramatic monologue written by Philip Ridley and performed by Gemma Whelan, (an actress who has already received a nomination for Best Solo Performance for the same role at last year’s Edinburgh Festival) locate it to a fringe theatre and watch as she becomes the teenage Andrea.
From an initally hesitant appearance in front of the audience she relates her confessional story; she is by turns self-deprecating, childlike and slightly paranoid. She breaks off the narrative with interruptions, returns to her autobiography, engages with theatregoers in the front row, at times in a confrontational manner, and ploughs into and through her history.
Happy memories of times spent with her folk-singing Irish mother are ruptured by the return of her father from prison and then by the abandonment of both parents, only to be taken in by the paternal grandmother (Mrs Vi) she never knew existed. In her teenage naivety she believes herself to be in love with the smooth-talking, seductive Tyrone with his scent of lemon aftershave. Older men deceive vulnerable young girls from broken homes when they are preparing to groom them to be passed around among their friends as mere sexual playthings. Adults are aware of these scenarios; a young teenager craving love is easy prey, especially with a ring on her left hand and promises of marriage.
In a recent interview with The Scotsman, Philip Ridley explains that the play began as a snapshot of urban life and the story of a person who’d been treated so badly, and had such self-loathing, that all the misogyny around her just infects her, and destroys her. Andrea’s lack of, and search for, a father figure feeds into the person she becomes. We watch her gradually disintegrate. Firstly there are just hints when her paranoia occasionally breaks through, although she manages to check herself and resume her monologue. Eventually the memories, and the lack of a loving home and family, augmented by the loss of her child, become too much for such a delicate psyche to bear. Her personality fragments until she becomes one with her missing mother and her childhood self and her memories echo earlier ones.
Dark Vanilla Jungle is an amazing tour de force in which one person holds the stage and our attention for more than an hour and makes us aware of how alone an abandoned person can be in the middle of a city like London. Ridley’s script and Whelan’s performance, as well as David Mercatali’s direction, bring the images of Andrea’s unhappy story to life, prompting and forcing the audience to relive her confessional and picture the scenarios that accompany the words and bringing a knowledge of how utter selfishness and self-regard can damage others.