Someone once wrote of the novel Vernon God Little that it ‘was a work of unutterably tedious nastiness and vulgarity’, and its author DBC (Dirty But Clean) Pierre ‘a man with no discernible literary talent whose vulgarity of mind was deep and thoroughgoing’. This play does feature amputee porn and a website called Bambi Boy Butt Bazaar. Yet they were face-palmingly, unutterably, tediously wrong: the novel is a wonderfully black and hilarious satire of American small-town ignorance and hypocrisy and of the ways in which society can tend towards rewarding the immoral. It won the Booker prize in 2003.
Attempting a stage adaptation is remarkably ambitious. The story is difficult: Vernon Little is accused of being an accomplice to a high-school shooting after his best friend enacts a massacre before committing suicide. He becomes a scapegoat - his friend is dead and they need someone to punish - and he runs away to Mexico rather than fight his case, for reasons unclear until the end. Another problem is Pierre’s prose style: dense with linguistic flair, full of Texan ticks and tongue-feel. Preserving this aspect of the novel might seem to be essential: without Vernon Little’s ability with language, we don’t root for him in the same way. However, in this adaptation Vernon is not as present; he’s not the narrator, and he doesn’t even have the majority of the lines. Instead the dialogue between those involved in his scapegoating is preserved in all its coruscating splendour, bitterly tweaking the banalities and bizarre excesses of the American South and letting their moral lacuna illuminate Little’s innocence. It works because the dialogue maintains even some of Pierre’s most shocking and complex exchanges - and because the performances are universally excellent.
Yet there is something bigger underlying this production: the use of music. The tendency of the townsfolk to break into inappropriate song is an extremely funny and effective way of demonstrating their darkly clueless insensitivity; a courtroom scene in which the main antagonist, Eulalio Ladesma, leads a rousing chorus of Amazing Grace, denying Little a chance to speak, is my favourite individual scene so far this Fringe. However, without Little’s voice and his way with words, this stage version falls short of the novel’s comic intensity. Little’s Texan drawl is not as convincing as almost all of the other cast members, a shame when the rest of the performance is intriguing. Ladesma is a great character, dripping with the grease of evil. This is a wonderfully dark and funny play which is sensitive to its amazing source material.