For those who were lucky enough to experience Philip Ridley’s latest theatre piece during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, there can be no surprise that Dark Vanilla Jungle returned to the city, as the first stop in a UK wide tour. The painfully brilliant and just plain painful play enthralled throughout August, winning a Scotsman Fringe First award and branding its mark on the city, even in a sea of performances. On only a handful of the glowing reviews Ridley received an extended run would have been a necessity. However, Gemma Whelan’s return may also feel too soon. Seven months may have passed, but the first audiences may still be feeling delicate and raw.
This one-woman show is a stunning, bruising whirlwind performance. It leaves you winded, speechless and completely blown away. It is a painful, intense and incredibly realised story of a young girl’s search for love and comfort in a world that seems determined to batter and stamp out every chink of light – this is indeed an extremely dark jungle the audience enters into. Discomfort is only the starting point, as Whelan pulls all watching through a relentless narrative of abandonment, sexual abuse and utter delusion. The experience is harrowing. It is also one of the finest, most gripping and revelatory pieces of drama to be staged in this country.
Any account of this performance seems to undersell it. It is extremely hard to put into words the reeling sensation left when Andrea, the girl whose world you are drawn into, transforms back into Gemma to walk off stage, leaving only her childlike ballet pumps behind. Her performance is incredible. From her entry to the empty stage, flower in hair, to the mind blowing final moments, Whelan is not offered and does not offer space to catch a breath. Aside from a brief moment of silence, when Andrea collapses into a twitching, whimpering fit, this monologue seems on the brink of bursting. Mixing time frames and rapidly changing from child like story telling to savage and explicit confrontations, this is a masterclass in confusion, mania and insanity. In the closing minutes, as the audience seems to approach the answer to the questions raised early on, before the descent to a modern hell fully takes hold, any solidly held truth is broken down and stripped away. What Andrea “did to the soldier”, what she “did to the baby” are both horrifically apparent, and hidden behind a webbed veil of lies, illusions and disturbed psychosis.
This is a brutal portrayal of misogyny and abuse, a fairytale in reverse that sees purity and innocence ravaged and pushed into darkness. It blazes and sears itself on the mind; a single figure in t shirt and jeans, a snatched song refrain, or the smell of lemons seem to haunt the corners of the brain, long after a blinking return to daylight. Any city this drama touches will be left both dreading and desperately yearning for a return of this terrifying, troubling, tremendous production.