Following the huge critical and popular success of their production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman earlier this year, Decadent Theatre Company are back with another exciting, high-profile, show; the stage adaptation of DBC Pierre’s Booker-winning novel, Vernon God Little.
Teenager Vernon Little lives in a flea–bitten Texan town, ‘the barbeque sauce capital of the state’, where his best friend has just massacred 16 of his classmates and then killed himself. The town wants vengeance and turns its sights on the innocent Vernon who is arrested at the start of the story. As the saying goes, ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going,’ Vernon hits the road and flees to Mexico pursued by a media circus of outlandish proportions.
Vernon God Little is a riotous, irreverent, adventure with a fast-talking 15-year-old who cruelly ends up on a version of death row driven by the rules of reality TV. Desperate times throw up the most unlikely of heroes. Vernon’s innate innocence exposes the nature of the American experience of justice in the eye of a media storm, and since he is a boy of such sweetness, he makes death row a respectable address.
The novel was published in 2003 to rave reviews, with critics enthusing over its ‘coruscating wit’ and ‘raw vitality,’ while Pierre was acclaimed as ‘a wholly fresh comic voice.’ Vernon God Little went on to win the Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction, the Whitbread Award for Best First Novel, and the Booker Prize.
During a break in rehearsals last Monday, director Andrew Flynn tells me what drew him to the story. “I first read Vernon God Little when it originally came out in 2003 and I remember really loving the humour of it and being impressed that DBC Pierre was a first time writer. At that stage I had never even thought of ever doing it as a play but the Young Vic had a huge hit with it in 2007, in a version by Tonya Sonder.
"I initially purchased the script of that because there are a lot of characters and I thought it might be something I could do with Galway Youth Theatre or Galway Community Theatre. Subsequently I read both the novel and the script again and started to think of it as a possible Decadent show. I put in for an Arts Council grant, I wasn’t sure I would get it because they were looking for work that was very well known.
"Thankfully they felt the book was well enough known and an exciting idea, so we got a grant to do it with Decadent. I think it is a brilliant story with brilliant writing. Like what we did with The Dead School, we have a script but we have also gone back into the novel and are using a lot of it. The Young Vic version was very slapstick and light, telling the story from a humorous angle. There’s plenty of humour in what we are doing as well, but we are also trying to get a bit more soul and weight into the characters.”
With its mass shootings, manipulative media, powerful psychiatrists, and characters who will do anything for money, Vernon God Little’s satire remains as potently relevant to America today as when it was first written. “Amid the comedy you have the tragedy and horror of Vernon’s life being turned into a media circus,” Flynn agrees. “This whole situation of people being tried by the media is a strand that runs right throughout the book. What’s great about the play is that you know from the beginning there is no question that Vernon is innocent and he’s the victim of all this terrible behaviour by everyone around him. It is brilliantly dark yet madly funny as well.”
Flynn tells me about the performers he has assembled for Decadent’s production; “We have eight actors and a live band. It’s tricky because even with those eight actors, Jarlath Tivnan only plays Vernon whereas nearly all the other actors play multiple roles. The cast are all Galway-based and a lot of them have come through GYT or the Community Theatre, I’ve been working a lot with them in those groups and they are all really good. It’s a young company and then there is Little John Nee who is the most senior member of the cast. We’re about eight or nine days into rehearsal and so far it is going brilliantly.”
“Little John plays the reporter Lally and also plays the psychiatrist Dr Goosens,” Flynn continues. “It’s my first time working with Little John even though I have known him so long. He’s fantastic in it and is getting on brilliantly with all the other cast members. There is great chemistry in the room. Also featuring in the show are Peter Shine, Kate Murray (as Vernon’s mother ), Eilish McCarthy (as Vernon’s crush, Taylor ), Tracey Bruen, Eanna O’Dowd and Tara Finn.
What of the music in the production? “It’s a kind of a country, rootsy Americana soundtrack, with the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, June Carter, and Glen Campbell,” Flynn reveals. “The band are present onstage all the time; they are called The Lifebuoys and their members are Emily Donoghue, Cónan Kilcoyne, and Eoin Donoghue. They used to be The Soprano Bats and they have appeared in productions of mine before.
"As well as the songs there is an underscore of music throughout the play which is composed by our musical director Carl Kennedy. The musicians were rehearsing for five days before the actors began and it already sounds amazing. The instruments are guitar mandolin and fiddle and the tunes are great fun yet powerful.”
Vernon God Little promises to be one of the highlights of the theatrical year in Galway. The show opens at the Town Hall on Monday, September 7, running until Saturday, September 12. There are previews from the Thursday, September 3 to Saturday, September 5. After its Galway run, the production embarks on a nationwide tour.
Tickets can be purchased from the Town Hall Theatre on www.tht.ie or by calling 091 569777.