Young Vic Theatre, London SE1
Opened 7 February, 2011

When Tanya Ronder’s adaptation of DBC Pierre’s novel premièred at the Young Vic in 2007, Sarah Hemming on this page observed that it caught “the wild energy and pitch-black comedy” of the book, but not its nightmarish aspect. Ronder’s revised version does much better on this score, and Paule Constable’s lighting makes it literally a much darker production, with many scenes being picked out on an otherwise black stage. Yet, however skilfully director Rufus Norris repoints his production, for me this does not restore weight to Pierre’s tale but rather clarifies how little there was to it in the first place.
This story of a 15-year-old white-trash Texan boy falsely accused of a high school massacre and a series of subsequent murders, and tried by media, has been likened to a contemporary Swiftian satire. Pierre’s vision shares Swift’s comprehensive misanthropy. However, where Swift took aim at particular targets and lampooned them with precision, Pierre lets fly indiscriminately at whatever crosses his field of vision. The redneck sheriff and others are implicitly indicted for their prejudices about “Meskins”, but when Vernon takes refuge across the border, the Mexicans he encounters are portrayed in exactly the same manner, not because he is the viewpoint character but because it’s good for a grim, disrespectful laugh. Every aspect of media, law and society is portrayed in scathing caricature, with the result that it becomes parody without point.
On its own terms, and notwithstanding that change of tone, the production rollicks. Ian MacNeil’s set design turns sofas into cars, a supermarket trolley into a black Maria and signifies a media-savvy courtroom by a tinsel curtain. Presiding over this sequence like Justice Aretha Franklin, and playing a number of roles like all the ten-strong cast bar the protagonist, is that force of nature Johnnie Fiori. Joseph Drake, like his 2007 predecessor Colin Morgan, makes an impressive professional début as Vernon, virtually never offstage. I quite failed to recognise the estimable Daniel Cerqueira in roles ranging from a paedophilic child psychiatrist to a philosophical axe murderer; Peter de Jersey has all the requisite smoothness but not enough sleaze as Vernon’s bête noire, the self-serving Eulalio Ledesma. And overall, I remain unconvinced that Pierre’s story has any point other than to showcase Pierre.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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