Dark Vanilla Jungle
4 stars ****
Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33)
ON A FRINGE full of powerful monologues, there’s none more shattering in its impact than this blazing new solo drama by Philip Ridley, artist, novelist, and author of controversial plays like Pitchfork Disney and Mercury Fur. The character who speaks, in Dark Vanilla Jungle, is Andrea, a desperately vulnerable teenage girl in contemporary London, played with by Game Of Thrones star Gemma Whelan with a wild passion that sears the mind; the play’s theme is violence, and the story of how the emotional violence done to Andrea in her childhood makes her a prime victim of the dark undercurrent of sexual violence in our society, which dominates so many of this year’s Fringe shows, and finally drives Andrea absolutely and tragically out of her mind.
So Andrea explains how she was abandoned by her father, rejected by her mother, and adopted by a gruff and ambivalent paternal grandmother whom she hates; and how her life suddenly changes for the better, when she meets a gorgeous black man who tells her he loves her, takes her to nice places, and asks her to marry him. Andrea, though, is a victim of grooming; and it is truly shocking to watch her dream of romance crumble into a hideous story of emotional betrayal and repeated sexual assault, and even more shocking to hear how she internalises the savage male dominance of the world she enters, simply accepting that her life has no meaning without male presence and approval, and despising other women who lose their partners by “not obeying them in every way”.
In David Mercatali’s production for Supporting Wall – with music by Nick Bicat – the final sequence of Andrea’s decline into madness, in which she constructs an entire fantasy relationship with a severely mutilated young Afghan war veteran, reaches a 20-minute pitch of hysteria that is increasingly hard to watch. Even if the pace is a shade relentless though, Whelan succeeds in burning Andrea into our minds, as a desperate Ophelia for our times; a bright, passionate girl hopelessly abused and betrayed, and finally lost, in a world of illusion, delusion, and lies.