A new take on musical theatre

Vernon Little is guilty. I know it, you know it, sure didn’t the people on the television tell us. Except, Vernon Little isn’t guilty. Ahead of the Ennis premier of the Booker Prize winning novel ‘Vernon God Little’ Andrew Hamilton speaks with the director, Andrew Flynn.

Vernon Little is a tragic child. An innocent teenager, tricked and manipulated into a death-row sentence for the mass murder of 16 children. Betrayed by almost all who know him. Desperate.
Not necessarily, one might think, an obvious subject choice to put to music. Yet music and dark comedy play a defining role in Decadent Theatre’s adaptation of Vernon God Little. These two elements, as introduced by director Andrew Flynn, help to make the play and original conception, capable of both great pathos and great joy.
“Right thought the show you’ve got this fantastic pumping, country music by a live band that underscores the whole production and gives it a great vitality. Do you know what, even if you weren’t into the play you’d go to see this just for the band. And on top of that you have these larger than life characters,” says Andrew.
“He constantly refers to music in the book. I felt that the presence of a live band would give it [the play] and energy that was really important. They are a young band called the Lifebuoys and they are there for the entire action of the piece. So you have double base, a guitar, mandolin, fiddle and right from the start they are there.
“When you walk into the theatre, you are met with this energy and music. They are playing before the show starts. There are songs littered throughout the play which helps in the storytelling and informative part of the story. There must be 12 or more songs and the cast sometimes take the songs and sing with them. It gives it this fantastic theatrical feeling – something like Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?. You have that music pumping all through the show.
“The band are upstage centre. They are a different level to the actors but they are visible on stage all the time. What is incredible is that you just forget about them after a while and you just watch the action – we make no effort to hide them, they are very visible throughout the whole piece.”

“There are dark elements but the predominant feeling is one of joy. The way we have staged it helps that. The characters are all larger than life and colourful.”

As the three piece band remain on stage for the entire show, Andrew had to learn to direct the players as he did his actors.
“The most difficult part, funnily enough, was when they were not playing. When they are playing the audience knows or realises in their minds that they are playing, so they can just focus on the action on stage. But when they not playing, that’s when the risk comes,” he said.
“But they are very good. Obviously they have to change instruments and things like that so they can’t stay completely still. But what is happening on the stage is so big and colourful that they don’t interfere with the story even though they are visible. But a lot of work went into making that happen.
“They [the band] have developed a way of communicating with each other with looks and nods and winks, there is minimum disruption. They are there from the start, almost like a piece of setting, so once you see them there you accept them.
“The music was a big part of how we made the show our own. My instinct was how to make this show theatrical and give it some action. It really works for this particular, so much so that some nights you can almost see the audience singing along.
“The play can move from comedy to very sad sections and scenes and the music can help with that. There is a scene where we move from this crazy courtroom scene to a jail, and the band sing an acapella version of ‘Amazing Grace’ and it completely changes the mood. But it always works with the actors and what they are doing, it never overpowers them.”
The play, like the book before it, deals with topics such as reality TV, the death penalty and school shootings – all topics which could mark it out as a uniquely American story. Yet, according to Andrew, the play has much to communicate to an Irish audience.
“The central character, Vernon – he is a beautiful character. What is extraordinary and is quite universal, is that this tragic event happens and the whole place become a media circus. You have television cameras and people fighting for interviews. Then all of a sudden the people in the middle of this become more concerned with how they can benefit from this,” continues Andrew.
“People are cashing in. Half way through the play you get this line from Vernon when he says ‘everybody forgot about the tragedy, except me’. It had become this kind-of frenzy.
“When this was first written we were first just tapping into reality TV. We were just starting to look at people living in a house together for six weeks. That is something that we are copping onto now, how staged and fake they are. The play deals with all of that as well.
“The starting point [of the play] is that tragedy. But you move on from that – in the days and months after that the story unfolds. The play allows you to meet these wacky characters. It’s a very funny piece.
“Besides the lead character, everyone in the play is obsessed with stardom. They are obsessed with people on television and all the mothers and women are obsessed with having a man. There is a lot going on in the play. It is very funny, very fast moving – we’ve been touring it for three weeks now and all the audiences leave with a smile on their face.
“There are dark elements but the predominant feeling is one of joy. The way we have staged it helps that. The characters are all larger than life and colourful.”

Vernon God Little comes to Glór in Ennis tonight.


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