When Game of Thrones star Gemma Whelan first performed Philip Ridley's devastating solo play, Dark Vanilla Jungle, during the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the actress and comedian was warned there would be walk-outs. Not because of the play's subject matter, which charts the car crash life of teenage Andrea, who is abandoned by her parents before being groomed by older men into a world that leads her deeper and deeper into an emotional morass she eventually kicks against with tragic consequences. Rather, such a reaction would likely as not be down to the more mundane response of audience members having to make a dash to other shows they've booked into.
Primed as she was, having one woman walk right across the stage just as she was in the emotional throes of one of the play's most harrowing scenes made things even harder for Whelan.
“That was a dreadful walkout,” she says, as she prepares to open a new tour of the Supporting Wall's production of Dark Vanilla Jungle at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh this week. “I figured if I could get through that, I could get through anything.”
Given the play's subject matter, a thick skin was essential for Whelan.
“It's quite a monster to take on,” she says. “It doesn't pussyfoot around a difficult subject matter, and is unapologetically directed. I felt rather sorry for Andrea, but also rather intrigued by how someone would behave like that. She's so desperate to be loved, so desperate that she completely overlooks the things that can go wrong in the situation. We can all relate to that, I think, someone telling you they love you or that you're beautiful, so you can be quite disarmed. So I can see how it happened, and how her life descends into tragic chaos. Of course, nothing like that has ever happened to me, but even so I felt real empathy with Andrea.”
Whelan was only cast in the show, she reckons, because the producers “wanted someone who was already coming to Edinburgh.”
Whelan's other Edinburgh show was as Chastity Butterworth, a jolly hockey-sticks creation who leads something of a double life. The contrast between the two shows was one Whelan describes as “the nettle and the dock leaf.”
It's a phrase that could apply to Whelan's own childhood, which couldn't be more different than Andrea's.
“When I was three years old I was demanding that my mother take me to ballet lessons,” Whelan remembers, “so I suppose I was always going to perform in some form. My parents met on an amateur dramatics production of Desire Under The Elms. My father is hugely entertaining, and my mother was wild and rebellious, so I guess some of both of those traits must've rubbed off on me.”
Whelan initially trained as a dancer, which led her to doing stand-up, before “I was lucky enough to start working as an actor.”
While luck may have played a part, given that her CV includes stints in the West End in the National Theatre's production of One Man, Two Guvnors, one suspects ability and ambition may also have had something to do with Whelan's recent success. As far as she is concerned, her big break came in 2010 horror film The Wolfman, where she appeared alongside the likes of Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins..
“That was my first proper part in a big film,” she says, “but I was terribly tenacious. I had lots and lots of noes before that.”
Luck did play a part, however, in Whelan being cast in the regular role of warrior queen, Yara Greyjoy, in HBO's TV fantasy epic, Game of Thrones. Whelan went to a casting for sit-com, Threesome, where the casting director suggested that their might be something for her on the next show he was working on. That turned out to be Game of Thrones
“It was just a case of being in the right place at the right time,” Whelan admits. She joined the programme for four episodes of series two, and, with a fourth series scheduled to be broadcast later this year, appears to have survived a third series cliffhanger.
“I'm in it,” is all Whelan can reveal about the forthcoming series. “My character's still alive, so I get to do some more swashbuckling.”
Whelan was recently in Glasgow filming for BBC 3 flat-share sit-com, Badults, a programme which might prove a more palatable watch for at least one member of her family than Dark Vanilla Jungle.
“My dad said he'll never see it again,” she says, “but my mum's seen it twice. In Edinburgh, my friends who came to see it would hang round afterwards to make sure I was okay, and one night a man was particularly moved by it, and waited for me. He said his girlfriend had been through something incredibly similar to what happens to Andrea, and watching the play really helped him understand things more.”
Ridley's writing may not be social work, but the experience of doing Dark Vanilla Jungle has made Whelan recognise it's power even more.”
“I read a lot around it,” she says, “and discovered some dreadful, horrendous things about this manipulative, duplicitous behaviour these girls were subjected to, but weren't listened to by the authorities, or were maybe not old enough to testify. As a result of that, there are so many of these people who've perpetrated these crimes who are still at large and who've never been prosecuted. So while this is a drama first, if it can raise any kind of awareness about this, that can't be a bad thing.”
Dark Vanilla Jungle, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, February 27-March 1.
The Herald, February 25th 2014