Dark Vanilla Jungle at Brewery Theatre

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The stage of Brewery Theatre is bare.  No props, no chair, nothing.  But this is a one-woman, 75 minute show?  Doesn’t a monologue at least need something to help it along, keep it interesting?

It seems not.  15 year old Andrea enters stage, dressed in skinny jeans and a thin white top, a slightly nervous girl to start, not quite sure what to say.  There is a lot of sweetness and vulnerability in this young woman, especially when she talks about her early childhood with her mum.  As her chatter progresses, it becomes obvious that all is not well with Andrea, who flits between recounting her life as a child and a very young adult, revealing flashes of violent anger.

Andrea has been mistreated by pretty much everyone.  Let down by her family and men, she confides in the audience, almost pleading with us to understand her, to not judge her, to love her.

Love.  That is something that Andrea is missing in spades.  She has it inside of her, of course, but she can’t quite seem to tap into anyone else.  When she and her friend, Emma, meet some right handsome men over a burger, she doesn’t believe her luck, especially when one of them, the important one, calls her beautiful.  No-one’s ever said that to her before.

Dark Vanilla Jungle spirals into despair.  Phillip Ridley’s writing is shocking, funny in places, truthful and bleak.  This is a devastating story of abandonment, grooming, gang rape, torment and deceit.  If it’s fun you want, don’t come here.

Gemma Whelan’s performance is extraordinary.  She tells Andrea’s story with a brutal honesty and impressive stamina, taking us to places we’d rather not go.  Her energy is relentless; this woman has a lot to say, as she tumbles into confusion and paranoia.  Whelan invites us to be the priest in her Confessional, whilst rendering us powerless, unable to help her, incapable of stopping her pain.   At one point, I wanted to stand up in the auditorium and shout, “Please someone, just fucking help her!’  But I didn’t.  Instead, I let the tears fall and, actually, they’re still pricking my eyes.

Why did no-one ever tell Andrea that there are good men in the world, that women can be equal, that we are not objects, nor are we weak?   Don’t let that wonderful spark be doused, Andrea.  But, we know, it’s already far too late for her.  She can never come back; her experiences have left her ridden with self-hatred, even madness.

David Mercatali has directed a highly disturbing, eye-opening piece of theatre here, the sort of play where all you can do when it finishes is take a deep breath and thank your lucky stars for the life you lead.

Tragic, frightening, heartbreaking, Dark Vanilla Jungle is on at Brewery Theatre until March 22nd.

– Review by Becky Condron

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366 Days of Kindness at Brewery Theatre

Can Kindness Change the World?  This question has certainly got Bristol interested because there isn’t one seat left at the Brewery Theatre!

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It’s August 2011 and society in England seems to be crumbling – youths riot in our cities, shops looted, cars burned.  There is discontent and fear.  In Deptford, South London, Bernadette Russell gives a hoodie-in-need the small change to make up the price of a stamp.  This tiny act changes his day.  Perhaps it changes her life.

Not always having been an overly kind person, illustrated to us by her litany of bad and ordinarily naughty things she has got up to in her life, Bernadette embarks on a campaign of kindness.  Every day for a (leap) year, she will do one small thing that will, hopefully, make a stranger happy.   And so, armed with her Rules of Kindness, she bakes cakes, gives away books, hands out cash, write little notes and scatters them, sends cards, gifts flowers.  The recipient should be random – those who look fed-up, those who do a lot for others, those in need, grumpy people …

Bernadette is an excitable sort of a woman and her delivery is, at times, a little hysterical, meaning that her journey is relayed with humour and passion. Gareth Brierley, her boyfriend, is supportive but maybe not so enthused by the plan, having borne the brunt of some of her previous crazy schemes.  His laid-back manner gives good balance to Bernadette’s frenzied performance and he’s a necessary element to this show.

366 days of kindness includes interviews and video footage, photos, pie charts, Billy Bragg, religion, a song about Fear, Dad dancing, a little audience participation and lots of wonderful shoes.

I think that, in real life, every day kindness would work much better without shoving a camera in the face of the recipient. You know, a more subtle approach?  But that’s not Bernadette’s style!   And we thank her for this frankness, otherwise we wouldn’t have enjoyed 80 minutes of energetic, fun storytelling.  I came away thinking that, yes, I do exercise random acts of kindness.  Perhaps I’ll make an effort to do more?

So, what’s the answer to that question?  Well, on a micro-scale, it’s a yes. Isn’t it?

366 Days of Kindness is on at Brewery Theatre until Weds 5th March, 8:15pm

You can see more about Bernadette Russell’s project on her website

#366daysofkindness

– Review by Becky Condron